The first post-shuttle resupply mission in International Space Station (ISS) history got off to a false start on August 24th, as a Russian Progress cargo spacecraft bound for the ISS failed to achieve orbit, sending three tons of supplies crashing into south central Russia.
Progress vehicles are expendable, unoccupied ships that carry supplies into orbit and dock with the ISS. The ships are unloaded by the ISS crew, filled with trash, and sent tumbling back into the atmosphere, where they incinerate during reentry.
The failure was traced to a premature third stage shutdown on the Soyuz rocket system that was hoisting the capsule. Although the ISS has enough backup supplies for the time being, the malfunction is disconcerting; Soyuz rockets are currently the only means of sending humans to the space station. The next crew, Expedition 29, was scheduled to launch towards the ISS on September 21, but as Russian scientists evaluate the Soyuz failure, future launches are on hold.
The politics of America's space future
With the only means of human ISS transport mired in uncertainty, it didn't take long for U.S. lawmakers to use the Progress failure as an opportunity to promote their positions on the future of American spaceflight.
NASA's successor to the space shuttle, the space launch system, is not intended to be used as a supply ship for the ISS. However, the massive rocket system was the subject of a joint statement issued by U.S. senators Kay Hutchison (R-TX) and Richard Shelby (R-AL) shortly after the Progress failure.
"We strongly encourage NASA to immediately announce this week -- not next month -- the design for their next launch vehicle," part of the letter read. Lawmakers have recently criticized NASA for failing to release the final design of the space launch system.
U.S. representative Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) didn't see the situation the same way, suggesting an emergency transfer of Space Launch System funding to NASA's thriving Commercial Crew Development program, saying, "The only way to achieve [reliable American space transportation] is to place more emphasis on commercial cargo and crew systems currently being developed by American companies."
It's worth noting that Texas and Alabama would likely be Space Launch System construction facility locations, and California is home to SpaceX, which is scheduled to send a test flight to the ISS in late November.
More woes for the Space Launch System
Politics aside, the Space Launch System received more bad news on August 19th when consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton released the executive summary of an independent cost analysis of the program (Click here to download the 1.1 MB PDF report).
The report suggests that NASA is perhaps a bit optimistic on its cost models for the new heavy-lift rocket system, and the program could quickly find itself over budget. Exactly how much is that budget? On August 5, the Orlando Sentinel reported that it could reach $38 billion over the next ten years. By comparison, the Saturn V rocket system that sent astronauts to the moon had a total cost of $6.4 billion from 1964-1973, which roughly equals $40 billion in 2010 dollars (using 1968 as the comparison year).
Estimating conservatively, if NASA's budget stays around its current level for the next ten years, the space agency will receive around $170 billion, meaning the space launch system will consume about 22% of the budget.
Space tourism goes vertical
New Mexico's Spaceport America landed $250,000 in federal funding from the Federal Aviation Administration to help build part of an assembly building for the world's first built-from-scratch vertical launch platform. The under-construction spaceport is already home to Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo, which is scheduled to begin flying tourists into space as soon as next year.
Finally, if you're looking for space tourism alternatives to spaceplanes or rockets, consider a trip in Zero2Infinity's "bloon," a pressurized space balloon that will take four passengers and two pilots to a height of 36 kilometers (22 miles). During the trip, the bloon's occupants will be high enough to see the blackness of space and the curvature of the Earth. The vehicle is scheduled to fly as soon as 2013.