China has joined the space race. The Asian giant with a booming economy launched its Shenzhou spacecraft carrying three astronauts, including the 33 year-old Liu Yang.
The spacecraft will dock with the spacestation module Tiangong 1. Tiangong means Heavenly Palace in Chinese. This is the second step in China’s long-time plans to put a space station in orbit, rivalling the International Space Station. The target year is 2020.
While Tiangong 1 is nowhere close to the magnificence of the International Space Station, it has to be remembered that this is just a test module. The docking techniques being used by China have been mastered by only the Soviets and the Americans before. A space lab is on the cards and China is putting heavy stress on manned missions.
This is in complete contrast with the ambitions of the American space program, which is now focussing on unmanned and a future manned mission to Mars. While it has been only the Chinese government which has been funding and operating the space program, NASA has been encouraging private players like SpaceX and Orbital Corps into entering the space race. Of course, the end of the Space Shuttle program has a lot to do with that!
The Chinese are optimistic about their chances. Said Zhou Jianping, the chief designer of China’s manned mission:
I believe that we can achieve this goal, because we already have the basic technological capability
The Sino-US competition is getting hotter and, in a twist of fate, entering a space race just like the one of the Cold War days. History does repeat itself… hopefully in a more positive way.
The next step in space will be taken on the 7th of May, but that was preceded on 30th April ’12 by the static fire of the launch vehicle. SpaceX, the company determined to take the mantle of NASA’s Space Shuttle program, will be launching their Dragon Space capsule on the 7th of May. Today they successfully static fired Falcon, the rockets that are meant to carry the Dragon into outer space.
Static fire means that the rocket doesn’t really launch and remains useable for a second time – or for the actual launch. The test wasn’t free of glitches, however. The scheduled test was at 1500 EST (or 1900 GMT), but while 47 seconds were remaining on the clock, the rocket’s engines showed a glitch, which was later traced down to a computer error.
The static launch was rescheduled for 1615 EST. There was no problem this time and the nine Merlin engines that will power the mammoth to space fired for two seconds, while the booster remained attached to the pads.
No fingers crossed
A static launch is a bit weird, but SpaceX doesn’t want to take any chances. NASA has been feeding this organization money and technology, so that they can be a proper replacement to the Space Shuttle. Here’s the time of reckoning. NASA is weighing the options of going on to build a new fleet of vehicles – Space Shuttle 2.0, if you wish – and of relying totally on SpaceX and SpaceX-like private companies to give them a lift to the heavens.
SpaceX is not the only one with the prestigious (and lucrative) NASA contract. Virginia based Orbital Technological Corp. have also gained NASA’s trust. They are contracted for eight cargo delivery missions using its own Cygnus and Antares rockets to the International Space Station. The first of the launches will happen later this year.
The actual launch will happen on May 7th. The launch will be telecast live on SpaceX’s website. Be sure to keep an eye out for us – we will keep you informed with the latest.
With Atlantis landing tomorrow, i.e. the 19th of July, 2011, the space shuttle program comes to an end. This is really the final hurrah!
NASA has cleared STS-135 for the landing tomorrow. Today, NASA mission managers performed a last minute inspection of the vital components of the space shuttle, including the all-important heat shield. No one would want a re-run of Columbia and NASA found that the heat resistant tiles were all in good condition. The space shuttle will return to Earth after a 12-day mission, during which it provided last touches to the International Space Station. The landing is expected to be at 5:56 AM EST or 9:56 AM GMT at the Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral, Florida. Atlantis launched on 8th July, 2011.
Weather seems to favour NASA as there are no forecasts of cloudy skies or rain. Should Atlantis miss this window, due to rain or other unforeseen factors, it will have another chance during a second window, which will open up at 7:32 AM EST. The options do not end there Atlantis will even be able to land on Friday, should it not be able to do so on Thursday.
The question on everyone’s mind is this: What next? NASA will have no rockets to put astronauts in space for a while now. During the years 2014 2016, it will hitch rides on Russian rockets as part of a $763 million contract. There are 12 flights planned in the agreement.
NASA hopes that it will gain a space shuttle capable of carrying a crew by the end of 2016, thanks to one of the four private companies that NASA’s been bottle-feeding with cash. Of the four, SpaceX (or Space Exploration Technologies) leads the pack followed by others like Blue Origin, the Boeing Company and the Sierra Nevada Corporation.
SpaceX has already demonstrated its capability with numerous successful test-flights of the Falcon-9 rocket, which it has built. It has also launched its own space capsule, called Dragon, from the Kennedy Space Center.
With just a day left before the last flight in NASA’s ambitious space shuttle program, the question many people are asking, or at least ought to be, is this: Was it all worth it?
The uncomfortable questions…
The space shuttle program began immediately after the 1969 Moon landing, an event often deemed as the escalation of the Space Race between USA and erstwhile USSR. Yes, the space shuttle program was what won it for the Americans; it was a brilliant follow-up of the giant leap of mankind. Yet, the question lingers. Is merely winning the space race compensation enough for an estimated $209 billion spent till the end of 2010? What about the 14 lives lost on two failed manned missions? More importantly, what happened to the initial promise of 50 launches a year, which petered down to an average of no more than 9 annual launches? Was the expenditure of more than double of the estimated $92 billion justified? Thorny questions face NASA, but NASA would rather focus on the future.
Figures: The true and the unrealistic ones
Let’s look at the figures a bit more closely. Space launches were supposed to be made weekly, totalling about 50 launches a year. That figure stands at a mere 9 as the program ends a disappointing failure by all accounts. From 1981 (the first launch) till 2010, 133 missions have been launched, bringing the average cost of each launch to a staggering $1.57 billion. What does NASA really have to show for it? What has really been achieved? The argument that we just don’t know the various achievements of NASA falls flat on its face since NASA is not known to be too discreet. Publicity is one thing NASA is good at.
The reality facing America and the rest of the world is stark: since the 1969 Moon Landing, we’ve been stuck closer to Earth. Sure, there have been repeated Lunar Missions, but has Man gone anywhere new?
In 1969, NASA had presented President Nixon with various proposals, including a space station, which would be a jumping off point for Mars, eventually paving the way for manned space missions to the Red Planet. Also, in the list of suggestions, was a Lunar Landing Base so that return to Earth was no longer necessary. This would have saved huge expenses in the long run, as re-entry is one of the costliest and most dangerous parts of any space mission. Then, there was the shuttle. Nixon ratified just the shuttle, citing lack of funds to support any of the others. The heating up of the Cold War worsened the fund crunch for NASA, as Nixon slashed funds further in 1972, right at a time when things were just beginning to move off of the drawing board. It would be another decade before the first space flight in the mission took place.
Was NASA being unrealistic and not merely ambitious? Could NASA have ever launched 50 flights in a year, after spending years preparing for the Apollo mission? Embellished with tags of being ambitious, safe and cost-efficient when it started out, the shuttle program seems to have failed on all three counts.
But let’s take a more positive look. Who could have dreamt of the International Space Station one and a half decades ago? It is the first habitable place outside Earth and, when NASA started building it in 1998, it promised a lot. True, many of those promises were not kept, but then, in active research, not all promises can be kept. It is an orbiting lab and provides an environment for microgravity experiments, which many believe will foster future research in fields like medicine. It’s one of a kind. Much of the shuttle program has been devoted to building up this unique behemoth.
The last of the space shuttle mission flights will take place in two days when space shuttle Atlantis roars off into space for a twelve day sojourn with the International Space Station. It will carry a crew of four members.
The last of the Mohicans
After the recent flight of the Endeavour – its last in which it delivered the multi-billion dollar antimatter detector to the International Space Station, NASA wants to wrap up its space shuttle program with this last flight of Atlantis. STS-135, its mission name, is expected to complete a twelve day mission during which it will deliver spare parts and essential supplies on board the ISS. The launch is scheduled on 8th July, 2011, for 11:26AM EST (or 1526 GMT) off Pad 39A at Cape Canaveral, Kennedy Space Center, Florida.
The space shuttle program, sanctioned by President Nixon, is four decades old, originating in 1969, right after America set foot on the Moon. This was the post-Apollo follow-up and a brilliant foray into space.
As for viewing the launch, NASA expects people numbering more than 75,000 to turn up. The best view will be from the NASA causeway or the Kennedy Space Center’s Visitors’ Center. NASA sells tickets to these spots, but they have been sold out for weeks. If you can shell out $1000 or even $1500 you might be lucky enough to buy a ticket to the Causeway on eBay.
The good news is that the launch will be visible from anywhere nearby provided that your view is not obstructed. Any nearby spot on the Florida space coast will do just fine and it comes for free. Titusville, a mere 12 miles from Kennedy Space Center (KSC), is billed as the premiere spot. It lies just across the Indian River from KSC. Next in line, almost as good, is the port town of Canaveral. The pad is clearly visible from both places. View Larger Map
For other enthusiasts, who will not be able to make it, NASA TV will offer HD coverage of the entire event just like it did for Endeavour.
NASA is crossing its fingers for this launch, hoping to avoid any sort of embarrassing scrubbing or postponement like the one in Endeavour’s case.
Here’s wishing NASA for a final glorious push. Watch this space for more…