November 20, 2013
New Step Brings NASA Closer To Launching Astronauts Again
[ Watch the Video: Launching Astronauts From American Soil ]
Lee Rannals for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online
NASA said it has taken another step in an effort to once again launch astronauts from American soil by the end of 2017. The US space agency is asking companies to complete development of crew transportation systems that meet NASA certification requirements and to begin conducting crewed flights to the International Space Station.
"NASA is committed to launching American astronauts from U.S. soil in the very near future, and we're taking a significant step toward achieving that goal today," NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said in a statement. "Our American industry partners have already proven they can safely and reliably launch supplies to the space station, and now we're working with them to get our crews there as well. However, we will require that these companies provide spacecraft that meet the same rigorous safety standards we had for the space shuttle program, while providing good value to the American taxpayer."
The next phase of the Commercial Crew Program (CCP) will ensure a company’s crew transportation system is safe, reliable and cost-effective. The process will asses progress throughout the production and testing of one or more integrated space transportation systems, including rockets, spacecraft and ground operations.
"The U.S. commercial space industry has made tremendous progress designing and developing the next generation of U.S. crew transportation systems for low-Earth orbit," William Gerstenmaier, NASA's associate administrator for human exploration and operations in Washington, said in a statement. "Finalizing these systems in accordance with NASA’s certification requirements will not be easy. The acquisition approach we are using is designed to leverage the innovative power of industry with the expertise, skill and hard learned lessons from NASA. This request for proposals begins the journey for a new era in U.S. human spaceflight."
NASA said the next phase will ensure a strong emphasis on crew safety. The space agency said it will be hanging with companies throughout development to help perform thorough testing of the systems.
"NASA is taking its years of expertise in human spaceflight systems and partnering with industry to develop a safe and reliable crew transportation system for NASA and for the nation," said Phil McAlister, NASA's director of commercial spaceflight development. "These certification contracts are part of a strategy that will help ensure human safety."
The space transportation systems being developed by the companies will not be solely used by NASA. Companies building these systems will be able to expand outside of NASA and offer up services to other industries in need of space transportation.
The CCP program is helping NASA build back up a program to launch astronauts to and from low-Earth orbit, but the space agency is also developing another spacecraft aimed at taking astronauts to Mars or an asteroid. The Orion spacecraft and the Space Launch System (SLS) are a crew capsule and heavy-lift rocket that will extend human exploration beyond Earth’s orbit, enabling astronauts to travel across the solar system.
Orion had a “flawless” test earlier in November, during which three massive panels protecting a test version of the spacecraft fell away from it as planned. NASA expects its Orion capsule to begin carrying humans to space by 2021, but the spacecraft’s first trip to space will most likely be next year.