As Space Shuttle Program Nears Retirement, Orion Waits In The Wings


An artist's depiction of Orion traveling by the moon

For some its been a disappointment.  The last 30 or so years of space flight with the shuttle program have been described by some as having discovered the new world, then just hanging out on its coast, failing to ever venture inland.  That might be true in some regards.  However, it brought a more permanent solution to entering and exiting Earth’s atmosphere at a smaller cost.  The shuttle’s largest legacy may be its work with orbital satellites and helping develop the International Space Station.  When something went wrong, the shuttle always came in handy with a crew to help repair whatever orbital man-made object needed attention.  And that being said, the shuttle program could never venture far past Earth orbit, travel to the moon, or attempt to land on any natural space object.

NASA’s Apollo Program, the one that brought man to the moon is the one that really inspired man’s desire to learn even more about the unknown.  The last time man set foot on the moon was in 1972.  Since then, man has managed to bring unmanned spacecraft to successfully land on Mars, Saturn’s moon of Titan, and the Voyager crafts, launched during the 1970’s are still functional and exploring the outer solar system.  We’re also headed to Pluto to study the recently reclassified dwarf planet.  All these missions are unmanned though.

The Orion capsule as seen at a development facility in New Orleans, LA (Photo Credit: NASA)

What’s the future of human space flight after the retirement of the shuttle program? More or less, it may depend of wrangling in Washington D.C. with fights over budget cuts and re-prioritizing funds during a time of economic uncertainty not only for the United States, but for much of the world.  Cancellation for the Constellation program, deemed as the shuttle’s successor was in February of last year.  Most recently, NASA’s authorization act, signed by President Obama officially ended Constellation.  However, that’s not to say that the spacecraft developed during Constellation will go to waste.  In fact, Orion, the crew exploration vehicle still waits in the wings as the main successor to the shuttle.  I’d think of it as an Apollo program on steroids, fully capable of pro-longed space flight, except to an even larger extent than Apollo.  It’ll be able to venture to the moon, asteroids, and possibly even Mars.

Although Constellation has been cancelled, it’s really being re-tooled.  Earlier this month, the Orion spacecraft was shipped to from a facility in New Orleans to a Lockheed Martin one in Denver in order to undergo critical tests.  As retirement of the Shuttle program looms, Orion waits ready to inspire an entire new generation of space flight observers.


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