NASA’s Long-Delayed Return To Human Spaceflight

With the launch of the SpaceX Demo-2 mission, the United States has achieved something it hasn’t done in nearly a decade: put a human into low Earth orbit with a domestic booster and vehicle. It was a lapse in capability that stretched on far longer than anyone inside or outside of NASA could have imagined. Through a series of delays and program cancellations, the same agency that put boot prints on the Moon and built the iconic Space Shuttle had been forced to rely on Russia to carry its astronauts into space since 2011.

NASA would still be waiting to launch its own astronauts had they relied on America’s traditional aerospace giants to get the job done. The inaugural flight of the Boeing CST-100 “Starliner” to the International Space Station in December was an embarrassing failure that came perilously close to losing the unmanned capsule. A later investigation found that sloppy software development and inconsistent testing had caused at least two major failures during the mission, which ultimately had to be cut short as the vehicle couldn’t even reach the altitude of the ISS, to say nothing of making a docking attempt. NASA and Boeing have since agreed to attempt another test of the CST-100 sometime before the end of the year, though a delay into 2021 seems almost inevitable due to the global pandemic.

But America’s slow return to human spaceflight can’t be blamed on the CST-100, or even Boeing, for that matter. Since the retirement of the Space Shuttle, NASA has been hindered by politics and indecisiveness. With a constantly evolving mandate from the White House, the agency’s human spaceflight program has struggled to make significant progress towards any one goal.

Post-Shuttle Plans

It’s often been said that the Space Shuttle was canceled without plans for a clear replacement, but the truth is quite a bit more complex than that. Less than a year after Columbia was tragically lost in 2003, President George W. Bush released his Vision for Space Exploration plan which would put NASA on a path to retiring the aging Shuttle fleet while retaining America’s launch capabilities and global lead in space exploration.

The plan directed NASA to complete primary construction of the International Space Station by 2010, at which point the Space Shuttle’s primary mission would be completed and the program could be wound down. Simultaneously, NASA was to develop the Crew Exploration Vehicle: a more traditional capsule that would be able to carry American astronauts to the Station, the Moon, and potentially even Mars. Test flights of this relatively simple vehicle were to begin by 2008, allowing sufficient time to bring it up to operational status by the time the Shuttle had flown its last Station assembly mission.

Space Shuttle Columbia

A key goal of the Vision for Space Exploration was the separation of crew and cargo. The Space Shuttle was an attempt to combine a crew transportation vehicle and heavy-lift booster into one reusable package, but the end result was a vehicle that never truly excelled at either task. It was too large and complex to merely ferry personnel to the International Space Station, but at the same time, its unique design and operational parameters limited the types of payloads it could realistically carry.

Put simply, the White House felt the Space Shuttle was a failed experiment that had not only cost the lives of fourteen American astronauts, but consumed too much of NASA’s budget and resources. The Vision for Space Exploration aimed to put NASA back on a safer and more sustainable path, with the eventual goal of leaving Earth orbit behind and returning to the Moon by 2020.

The Constellation Program

In response to the President Bush’s Vision for Space Exploration, NASA developed the Constellation program in 2005. It consisted of two separate rocket boosters, one intended to carry a human-rated spacecraft, and the other a heavy-lift vehicle that had eight times the cargo capacity of the Space Shuttle. Under the new program, large spacecraft bound for the Moon or Mars would be launched ahead of time on the larger rocket, and its crew would ride to space in the smaller rocket and meet up with it in orbit.

Ares I-X launches on October 28, 2009

The program also called for the development of the Orion capsule and Altair lunar lander, both of which would be heavily influenced by their Apollo-era counterparts. There were even plans to use a modernized version of the Rocketdyne J-2 engine used on the Saturn V rocket, though modern safety requirements lead to this idea being dropped fairly early on.

Unfortunately, the Constellation program was plagued with delays and cost overruns. Part of the problem was that NASA still had to fund and operate the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station, which put an enormous strain on the agency. Taking money and engineers away from the Shuttle program while it was still carrying astronauts could have lead to another disaster, so it’s little surprise that Constellation was never a top priority.

In 2009, NASA performed a test flight of the Ares I-X, a prototype of the human-rated booster rocket designed to carry the Orion capsule into low Earth orbit. While the flight was a success, it would be the only piece of Constellation hardware to ever fly. With inert mock-ups standing in for the upper stage and crew capsule, the incomplete Ares I-X ultimately became a symbol of how little progress the Constellation program had actually made since its inception.

Commercial Crew Takes Over

By this point the White House was now occupied by President Barack Obama, and as is often the case when the Administration changes hands, the new leadership was looking to cut costs and streamline operations. Reviews ordered by President Obama concluded that completing the Constellation program would cost at least $150 billion dollars, and even then, a return to the Moon or a mission to Mars in the foreseeable future was unlikely. Based on these findings and what he called a “lack of innovation”, he officially canceled the program in 2010; a year before the Space Shuttle was scheduled to make its final flight.

Looking for a more modern and agile approach to delivering cargo and crew to low Earth orbit, the Obama Administration made a hard push for involving commercial operators into NASA’s operations. Money was specifically allocated for the new Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) program, which was tasked with finding companies that could design, build, and operate their own human-rated spacecraft.

Dream Chaser prototype during testing.

Boeing’s CST-100 was among the first wave of vehicles to receive funding through the CCDev program, as was Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser spaceplane. As a contingency, development of the Orion crew capsule would be allowed to continue should NASA’s new commercial partners fail to produce a workable vehicle.

With the retirement of the Space Shuttle looming, it was clear that America would have to rely on Russia’s spacecraft to bring astronauts to the International Space Station, but this was seen as a temporary measure.

When the second phase of the CCDev program started in 2011, Boeing was confident the CST-100 could begin crewed test flights in 2014, and NASA believed Orion would be ready for operational flights to the ISS by 2016.

Dragon Rising

While NASA and its traditional aerospace partners were dealing with the realities of going back to the drawing board for a human-rated spacecraft, SpaceX had already put their Dragon capsule into low Earth orbit with a homegrown booster and were preparing for their first cargo mission to the International Space Station. SpaceX had been awarded funds through the cargo-only version of CCDev, known as Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS), and was quickly making a name for themselves.

By 2012, SpaceX had already sent a Dragon to the ISS.

So when the third phase of CCDev opened up in 2012, SpaceX was considerably ahead of the game. Not only was a version of their proposed spacecraft complete and already flying, but they were unique among all the CCDev entries in that they had also developed their own booster rocket to carry their vehicle into space. This vertical integration was not only the key to SpaceX’s vastly reduced operating expenses, but enabled a rapid iterative design process that their competitors simply couldn’t match.

NASA officially selected SpaceX as one of their Commercial Crew partners in 2014, and they were awarded $2.6 billion to develop a modified version of their Dragon cargo capsule for crewed missions with the expectation that they could have it tested and certified by 2017.

But the company still had to fulfill their cargo obligations under the COTS contact, which combined with the normal setbacks and delays that are to be expected when developing a human-rated spacecraft, pushed the first test flight of the new Crew Dragon to 2019.

Beginning of a New Era

Since the retirement of the Space Shuttle was officially announced, its nebulous replacement was perpetually a few years away from making its first flight. But even with an eight year head start, by the time Atlantis rolled to a stop for the last time, NASA had nothing to show for all the time and money spent chasing paper rockets. Despite over a decade of development, the CST-100 and Orion still haven’t started operational flights. The traditional aerospace industry failed to answer the call.

Behnken and Hurley aboard Crew Dragon

By carrying astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley into space, SpaceX has officially brought a difficult chapter in NASA’s history to a close. It not only marks the end of the agency’s reliance on foreign hardware to conduct its human spaceflight mission, but proves that the old ways aren’t set in stone.

The dark horse soundly beat the entrenched giants, and the democratization of space has never been closer. It’s hard to predict what the next decade of human spaceflight will look like, but there’s no question it’s going to be a lot more exciting than the previous one.

55 thoughts on “NASA’s Long-Delayed Return To Human Spaceflight

  1. This shows disadvantages of short-term planning and lack of focus.

    At any rate, my congratulations to USA on finally launching their own human spacecraft again. This will hopefully heat up things, and cause friendly competition to accelerate.

    Onwards to Moon, and hopefully Mars!

    1. NASA learned their lesson when designing the SLS program to replace Constellation, they designed it to be politically unkillable. So it is a conservative design that spreads the pork around appropriately.

      But 10 years later, things have changed. We have Falcon Heavy, Vulcan, New Glenn and Starship all available or coming soon. I’m sure NASA would love to kill SLS and spend their money more appropriately on payloads rather than rockets. But they can’t because the program is designed to be unkillable. So there are disadvantages of long term planning too!

      1. The way i remember it, he inherited a near depression, said space can be done better by private industry, and here we are celebrating spacex. If we stuck to status quo, i dont think we’d be here.

  2. Congratulations and all that. It was super smooth. I watched the launch, the first stage landing, the docking, but unfortunately not quite the final hatch opening.

    I think the real test for the vehicle will be the re-entry. That will be a lot more nerve-racking, IMHO.

    BTW, does the Soyuz capsule have the same flip-up nose cone as the Dragon? That just looks very James Bond villain-y to me. (c:

    1. Dragon 2 heat shield and re-entry systems are based on lessons learn from Cargo dragon which flew more than 20 flights (including several capsules performing the flight multiple times). The parachute system is new and has undergone very extensive testing, probably more than any other capsule.

      1. I’m dead serious. All we’re doing is sending people up there to spend some time doing maintenance and cleaning. After all these years messing around with the ISS, what have we accomplished ?

        Beyond orbit, there’s the Moon and Mars, both extremely hostile environments which have very little to offer for us. And anything beyond Mars is too far.

        1. Please educate yourself. The ISS is a designated National Laboratory. There is important research being conducted on it literally 24 hours a day, with racks upon racks of experiment modules that are being changed out regularly.

          Yes, the astronauts spend a lot of their time cleaning and doing maintenance, but that’s because they aren’t the scientists. They are the custodians of the lab, who help out when possible. If anything, they are more frequently the subjects in the experiments.

          1. Most of the research is related to effects of microgravity on biological systems. But that research is mostly justified by the goal of sending humans on long space missions.

            Once you admit that there’s no point in going to Mars, there’s also no point in learning what happens to our bodies in space.

          2. What is the attraction to turn Mars into our next home ? Why not Antarctica or the Gobi desert, or the bottom of some ocean, which are relative paradises compared to Mars ? What is the obsession with an unlivable hellhole millions of miles away ?

            I would imagine being on Mars to be the most magical experience for about a day. After a week, most people would be begging to go back.

          3. @artenz Thats not specifically true. Crystalline structures from various solutions form better/bigger in microgravity which aids in testing various medications/treatments. Also when creating medications in microgravity are often times simpler since it does not require a filtration system for sediment to be as complex which speeds up production for testing as well as reduces errors in experiments. Those are just a few examples of its usefulness to have a presence in space.

          4. @TheDon: Some things may be easier to manufacture in microgravity, true, but then we can just let a private company develop the technology. Most likely, they’ll figure out a way to do it without human presence.

        2. I have got a different opinion here.
          Research is never useless.
          You never know when some little discovery can be very helpful in solving big problems.
          And money is just an arbitrary number of something man has invented.
          The astronauts go up there on their free will
          and more than often, by looking back, they make us aware of earth and humanity.
          Besides, it’s perhaps not the most important what we accomplished in life,
          but how we lived.
          Call me naive, but if our descendants look back at our time,
          I want them to see us as people with personality, dreams and hope.
          Not just as profit-oriented, Ferengi-type of people.

          1. I agree that research is useful, but there are many different ways to perform research. Instead of going to space we could decide to research energy generation and storage. I’m fairly confident that would result in more bang for the same buck.

        3. Artenz, you seem to be missing the value of being in space on every level, which is really sad to see. However, I have a few minutes so I will take this opportunity to compile some info together to help demonstrate the concrete (non-opinionated) value of human space flight, and close with a philosophical argument (opinion) for humans in space. Since you had a few specific points I’ll address those first. This is long, because there is lots of information and I’m tired of people dismissing good solid information on forums such as these because people would rather have a short tidy response. If the information is good, it needs to be shared in full, post length be damned.

          Q. After all these years messing around with the ISS, what have we accomplished?
          A: I started to write out my own extensive list of things I had personal experience with, but then realized that there’s already a way better resource out there. Just read Spinoff: This annual NASA publication profiles commercial technologies that have come directly from, or directly benefited from, space flight activities going all the way back to 1976. The majority of these technologies have come directly because of manned activities and would likely not otherwise have come about. It’s a great source of info for all kinds of tech innovations that are helping to make our lives easier, healthier, etc. Since I’ve seen from your comments that power technology is a pet project of yours, look through at all the power tech products produced and research going on. Try to calculate the market reach and value of these products. If you can actually come to a number, you’re better than me as I gave up after the first few points because it gets too complicated. Either way, I’m positive you will come to a number many orders of magnitude greater than what we have spent sending people to space.

          Just want to find products that have come from research and experiments from the ISS? Start from 1998 and go forward, see what has come in. That’s 22 years of archives, and I will not be summarizing it for you. I will assume you are capable adult who can digest this information on your own. Want to see what they’re working on currently and how it benefits us on Earth? Look at their technology roadmap: Once again, I don’t feel that summarizing this is my job, and the volume and density of information speaks for itself. If you still have doubts about the value of manned space flight, point to specific things.

          Just to tack onto the end of that my personal experience: I’ve seen first-hand the work NASA has been doing to help with producing food with minimal supplies, recycling air and water for astronauts on the space station and long duration missions, and other technology to keep people alive in space. These technologies are spurred and funded by manned space missions and directly benefit humanity in a profound way by helping us clean our air, produce water for people to drink, and improve our lives with better technology. I’ve also personally worked on technology projects for generating power in space, the output of which didn’t end up even benefiting manned space flight, but instead is helping advance efficiency in ground-based power generation. There were also medical applications for the technology we were working on. My point is even with the technology highlights in Spinoff that you can see, there are often lots of follow-on and complex trickle-down effects of the research being done that benefit everyone in unexpected and unpredictable ways. I believe saying that there is no value in any of this is hugely short-sighted and displays a profound lack of appreciation for the complex relationship between manned spaceflight and human life on Earth.

          Finally, the philosophical point which I personally think is the most important point of all: we need to become an interplanetary species to survive. This isn’t just a pipe-dream for Elon Musk to sell more rockets, it’s a cold hard fact. If we don’t run ourselves out of resources and space on this planet or kill ourselves off with war and famine, one day we are going to face the extinction of our species from a source we do not control. It may be a meteor or comet striking the planet, it may be the death of our star in the distant future, or maybe a massive volcano will erupt, or some as-yet not-understood geological process will render Earth uninhabitable for human life. The point is, there’s a lot about our continued existence that we don’t control. Volcanoes and meteor strikes in particular we know (based on our own geological history) happen with surprising regularity, wiping out large swathes of species on the planet in the process. There’s even a chance that we as a species have already experienced one or more of these events, and barely come through it as a species. We know then, it’s not a matter of IF but WHEN one of these events will come again. When it does come, it WILL decimate our planet and quite possibly wipe us out of existence. The best remedy? Increase our chances by populating more than one planetary body in our solar system. Build a new, interplanetary ecosystem where we can better support each other in times of crisis, and ensure when disaster does come, we as a species still have somewhere to live. That will insulate us against failure if an asteroid hit decimates the planet. After that? Move to new solar systems. That will ensure we as a species survive the death of our sun. After that? Who knows. Maybe we can escape the death of the Universe. Maybe we can’t. We will never know unless we try.

          You say that the Moon and Mars are hostile environments with very little to offer us. I say even if you look past the material value that all the raw materials, minerals, etc that each location has to offer, there is still great value to be had as test beds for our technology, for teaching us how to expand into environments that we can’t naturally inhabit, evolve beyond our current geographic limits, and above all the hope that we will be able to survive and thrive despite the worst that nature could throw our way.

      1. The US can’t either. All this talk of the US launching a rocket while it actually was a private company. The US hasn’t launched manned rockets in a while and won’t quickly do so.

        1. A private company that could only exist in the US.

          Go ahead, name the private companies in other countries who are launching manned missions, or who have long-term contracts for supply deliveries to the ISS. I’ll wait right here.

          1. Let’s first establish we’ve confirmed the US hasn’t launched any astronauts and both won’t and can’t for a long time to come. Meanwhile, Russia can and has been steadily launching people into space. China has achieved human capabilities after the US lost the ability to do so and has been doing so regularly. After establising that, we’ve moved the goalposts and now we’re discussing private companies and the countries they’re in.

            You ask me to name something else than you claim. Your claim is that private companies in no other nation could achieve a similar achievent. No evidence or proof is given and there’s no obvious reason a private company elsewhere couldn’t achieve something similar. There certainly aren’t any technological, financial or political reasons this would be impossible. It seems a bit silly to derive national pride from a private company set up and run by a South African Canadian.

        2. Newsflash: Boeing is a private company. So was Rocketdyne, General Dynamics, Aerojet, Lockheed, Grumman, Martin, Northrop, Convair, North American Aviation, McDonnell and Douglas Aircraft before they became Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, McDonnell Douglas and Rockwell International (before the last two were absorbed into Boeing).

          Automotive makers Ford and Chrysler are also private companies that once built space hardware (remember Ford Aerospace? What about the Redstone or Saturn 1/1B built by Chrysler?). The fact is all manned spacecraft like Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, and Space Shuttle were built by private companies under government contracts via NASA, whose last “A” is Administration).

      2. True, but irrelevant. I love to see NASA and SpaceX launch rockets, providing cheap access to Earth orbits, sending probes to Mars and other bodies in the solar system. I’m a big fan, not only of specific companies, but also the US environment that fosters the growth of them.

        I would just prefer for the useless manned programs to be scrapped, and see the budget used for more unmanned missions (even though my country cannot compete with that either)

        I would have gladly traded the ISS for a few good space telescopes, for example.

        1. First even the physicists themselves find issue with cern because of its focus on the higgs. Why didn’t they make a Lwfa for the money. Superheavy elements research (fusion too) would have jumped by a mile. Plus at this rate we have bottomed out the sub atomic stuff. Personally I think this area of research holds most promise because of the island of stability. Probably a nuclear isomer gamma laser is in there somewhere
          Second, nasa started the conversation about space. If anything has been proven over time is that the govt is only good at primary research and delivering working prototypes from the TRIGA and the Polaris style light water reactor to bell labs and MOS transistors. This is how they should do scaling operations by partnering with commercial interests. Then those smart engineers will be free to design nuclear subterrenes for Europa and enceladus. Or starshades and aragoscopes. Because that is why we go to space. As the Russians believe(d) it is a fundamental good for the human race

    1. Sometimes the technological advances we’ve benefited from space exploration programs aren’t as obvious: 20 Inventions We Wouldn’t Have Without Space Travel and Inventions we use every day that were actually created for space exploration. There are a few (i.e., a lot) more.

      IMHO, whether or not we’ll colonize, live, travel, etc. to different planets is beside the point. At least in my lifetime. Our journey there will yield advances that can benefit us now and in the near future, long before we get to another planet.

      1. Doing something ridiculously expensive and fairly useless, in the hope that you stumble upon on some technological advance that you can use elsewhere is generally not a smart way to do things.

        It’s better to do something ridiculously expensive that’s actually useful at the same time. You’ll probably stumble upon a similar amount of technology that can be spun off for other purposes.

        1. By that logic, we should shut down CERN. The research there has no immediate, practical applications.

          Oh, except that they invented web servers and browsers there as a way to share data. They weren’t intending to launch an enormous, world spanning, economic giant while they were doing “useless” basic research. It just sort of happened.

          1. I never said that the application should be practical or immediate.

            The goal of CERN is to deepen our understanding of fundamental physics. I think that’s a useful goal.

    2. There is that adage “we were asking ourselves if we can instead of if we should”. There is zero practical reason to go to Mars except testing human curiosity and hope to find something that exist only in someones imagination. We should spend all those funds and effort on making planet habitable and sustainable in a long term instead on making a barren rock a confined jail for future generations. Both Mars and Earth to be exact.

    3. No go reason, huh?

      Here’s 19 reasons:

      1) Because it causes most of us to lift our eyes up from the ground and look outwards, something we humans have done for a long time.

      2) If the first exodus from Africa had never happened we would never have been so successful a species as we are now. We also would probably not be here now.

      3) Because it is the highest cause to which we aspire.

      4) Because it is exciting for the human spirit.

      5) Because it challenges us to push the envelope. If you don’t push the envelope you stagnate and eventually retreat to insignificance.

      6) Because of what happened to nations in the past who turned their backs on exploration, two names — Portugal and China (now learning from its mistakes) — show how a nation can go from preeminence to almost irrelevance in a short period of time.

      7) Because it is the greatest experiment that requires all nations to participate together. What better way to come together?

      8) Because we will eventually, one way or another, need to defend ourselves against some solar system detritus. Only a strong presence in space can do that.

      9) Because robots cannot be inspired.

      10) Because sending my 35mm Instamatic or Digital SLR to the Grand Canyon does not a vacation or expedition make.

      11) Because I do not wish to spend any more of my life in virtual reality. I want real reality.

      12) Because sending robots will produce new technologies in electronics, materials and a few other disciplines, but sending people will result in thousands of new technologies and disciplines, from medicines to zero-g flower arranging.

      13) Because if we send anything less than all that we are to the stars then we are diminished.

      14) Because Robots don’t write poems or paint pictures.

      15) Because I would not have liked to see Star Wars with just R2-D2 in it.

      16) Because humans make robots look like what they really are, just souped up toasters.

      17) Because I know of no robot that has actually expressed an interest about going into space.

      18) Because I am human and I want to go.

      19) Because it’s NOT just about the science.

      1. Not to mention having to go before you get abroad the ISS; 1 would be perhaps somewhat awkward but manageable, 2 on the other-hand . . I would be tempted to fast a day or two before going up to avoid that.

        1. I’m going to hazard a guess that they wore a MAG at launch. I did catch a conversation between them and ground control while they’re waiting for the hatches to open how long it’ll be so they can manage their meals.

    1. the short trajectory has one disadvantage – short aclimatization to microgravity…it’s one thing to deal with this in the module where you have nothing to do, but if you’re not feeling well while already on the station where you have a work schedule, you’re literally slowing things down.

  3. An entire article about this fantastic achievement without even mention of Musk’s name – incredible. This wasn’t NASA’s achievement or the US’s achievement – this was pure Musk and his company SpaceX. Without him it would never have happened and we would still be the mercy of the economic rapists, Boeing and Russia. He deserves the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

    1. Yep. But most people can’t comprehend that you can be an ordinary asshole sometimes while still being an extraordinary genius really doing everything towards advacing humanity to become multiplanetary. Methings that for most people he is just an evil millionare while there are an order of a magnitude more rich sociopats out there.

      1. And providing lots of good paying jobs to boot. You might say some trickle down economics at work!

        Some people decry sending men/women into space. I don’t. Man needs an outlet for adventure/frontier. Even heros to aspire too. To accept risks. To solve hard problems. To find new materials/methods/tools/technology/medicines to meet the challenges. To build — not tear down/deface/loot/etc.. Go forward. Not stagnate. To go where man has not gone before. So a very good way to spend money in my mind … if you have it to spend!

    2. During the conclusion of the first Moon mission I was surprised to have Pat Marotta enter his electronics lab run by me, and hand me a cigar out of his box. Later I found out that the Marotta MV-74 valves were responsible for combining the hypergolic fuels on the space capsule for de-orbiting the Moon and returning to earth. A few years ago I saw the rocket motor with numerous Marotta Valves in the space museum at Alamogordo New Mexico.
      When I saw it, I choked up and pride rushed through my body for having a small part in the historical achievement. It is people like Musk and Marotta through their talents to gather innovative people and by their motivations and tenacity that make the impossible a reality.
      Marotta and Musk will always be remembered by me as Edison would be by others.

      1. I worked for a company that assembles mil-spec/aerospace connectors. They are design partners with SpaceX and multiple ISS integrators. I was a maintenance technician there so had a direct hand in keeping the machines running that made all these mission critical connections. Every time I know about a SpaceX launch or a live feed from the ISS I make an effort to tune in because, in some small way, I played a part in that. It’s the coolest thing in the world to see those connectors in the background of a shot because I had a hand in that. It’s like I’m a member of club that helped human being get to space.

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