Lynx suborbital concept from Xcor
Apparently the recent disagreements between the US and Russia about where Russia should park its tanks – at home or in, say, Georgia – are creating a problem for NASA. The schedule for the Orion spacecraft has been slipping, and it looks like we will have at least two years, 2010-2012, where we will not have any human launch capacity in the US. NASA officials seem to think the Russians will not be willing to provide additional launch services to help us out in staffing and supplying the ISS. (Article link.)
First, this is stupid. I know the Shuttle orbiters are wearing out, but with the level of refurbishment they supposedly go through after each flight – far more than the designers originally anticipated, at far higher cost – can’t we stretch it a couple more years?
There has been sort of a half-assed NASA initiative to help commercial companies develop launch capability, but only SpaceX has seriously been working toward a manned orbital vehicle.
SpaceX has been having some problems with their unmanned launch vehicles so far. I think a big part of the problem is this roadblock the US government threw at them requiring that they must launch from Kwajalein Atoll instead of here in the continental US. (There was a huge delay with the first launch, for example, because another shipment of liquid oxygen had to be brought in by ship, pretty much to the ass end of nowhere. There is virtually no support out there in the Pacific. Why not let them launch from Vandenberg or Canaveral?)
If NASA was smart, they would be dumping dollars into companies like SpaceX and cutting the hell out of red tape holding them back. Unfortunately, they historically have promoted more red tape to control companies like that to protect the huge number of employees used to refurbish and launch the Shuttles. As Pournelle has said time and time again, the Shuttle is not a space transportation system – it’s a government jobs program.
Still, maybe companies like SpaceX will still get it done, with the support of NASA or not. We can hope.