The space race culminated with Kennedy's commitment to get to the moon within the decade. That meant stretching existing, 1950's ICBM technology rather than developing anything new. True, there was some innovation and some extraordinary engineering, but broadly, it was 1950's technology re-engineered. This culminated with a 365 foot tall rocket of which only about ten foot remained to return to earth. Spectacular and more powerful than anything built since, but already old, very wasteful and extremely expensive.
The Russians saw where this was headed and gave up on the race. They were left with a reliable but less powerful, and equally wasteful Soyuz launcher.
After Apollo, the Americans decided to go the reusable route and spent gzillions on developing the Shuttle. At the other extreme to old technology Apollo, the shuttle was cutting edge and, as it turned out, slightly beyond. Designed to fulfil exacting military as well as civilian criteria, costs and timescales overran, to the extent that it wasn't available to boost Skylab, a cheap but effective space station, into a higher orbit. Skylab burned up in the atmosphere, its replacement, the International Space Station (ISS) was unspeakably expensive to build, at a time when NASA's budget was in any case being savaged.
The shuttle fleet of four civilian and one military orbiter was supposed to fly roughly once a month and drastically reduce the cost of flying people and satellites into orbit. It achieved neither.
The Russians watched and produced their own, remarkably similar looking shuttle, Buran, which had one unmanned flight before being cancelled as too expensive. Wise Russians.
The reality is that the technology wasn't quite there to make the Shuttle viable as a reusable vehicle. Servicing it between flights took much longer and cost much more than ever envisaged. But if the technology wasn't there to make it cost-effective, the management wasn't there to make it safe. Tragedy combined with difficulty to severely curtail the number of flights. And over 90% of these were used to build the ISS which itself was haemorrhaging NASA dry.
The Russians meanwhile redeployed their energies into producing more cost effective and powerful versions of the throw-away Soyuz rocket, in so doing, they created some of the most advanced and powerful engines ever. At the same time, other former Soviet States got in on the act. In particular, The Ukraine used its experience in building missile fuselages to build new first stage structures for modern rockets..
As the Shuttle became more and more risky to fly and increasingly vulnerable to delay (now down to a fleet of three and barely achieving four flights a year), the cost of hoisting people and cargo into space was now higher than in the Apollo days. So, having completed over 100 launches to build the replacement for the space station that it failed to save, the Government decided enough was enough and cancelled the shuttle programme..
Which is all very good from a budget standpoint, but how are you going to keep the ISS going? How does the mighty USA keep a presence in space? The answer was to instruct NASA to develop the 'Constellation' programme. Designed to send people back to the moon, it was described as 'Apollo on steroids' It would use the Shuttle's solid fuel boosters (yep, the ones that exploded, taking out Columbia) and a derivative of the Saturn V rocket's F1 engine (ie the old Apollo one). Of course, all the people who had built F1 engines had long since retired, so there was much hunting around museums for F1 engines, so that they could be dismantled, in order for a new generation to work out how to build them. Embarrassing.
In truth, nobody could get excited about redoing Apollo, so when Obama was elected, he cancelled Constellation. Which left the old problem; how do we get stuff into space when the shuttle retires? Only now the problem is worse, because two years of development time have now been lost there will be a significant gap between the end of the Shuttle era and the start of any new US capability.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Elon Musk (founder of PayPal) had started a private rocket company called Space Exploration, SpaceX for short. They had built from scratch a small (it's all relative), single engined rocket, that succeeded in reaching orbit on its fourth flight. Shortly before the final Shuttle flight, they had flown their bigger version, a nine engined variant, which reached orbit on its first attempt. The Falcon 9 is a serious rocket, comparable to many of its competitors in lift capability, but at something like a third of their costs.
This encouraged the Government to instruct NASA to seek commercial partners to fulfil the mundane task of resupplying the ISS with food and water etc. At the same time, they agreed to pay the Russians $60 million dollars per person to fly up and down to the ISS. Embarrassing.
Unsurprisingly, SpaceX was one of the winners of the contract, which accelerated their ability to develop their 'Dragon' spacecraft. A lot like an Apollo command module (the bit that came back), the Dragon is capable of re-entering the Earth's atmosphere and parachuting to a gentle splashdown. Only the Russian Soyuz and the Shuttle had the ability to return things to earth up to that point.
The other winner was Orbital Sciences, a long established company with an impressive track record of building satellites, and some success using non-commercial hardware to launch satellites to orbit. There is one small problem with respect to Orbital's launcher. Well, two really. The engines.
When Russia decided to focus back on Soyuz, it had a stockpile of around 40 engines that had been built for other launchers. They were very good engines, better than anything in the US. So Orbital bought the whole batch. Some, by now were around 40 years old, but had been well preserved. So with American taxpayer money, they fitted US control systems and the ability to swivel the engine and fitted them to their 'Antares' launcher. And where does the first stage for this all-American rocket get shipped in from? The Ukraine. It may be the only place in the world right now, where Russia and The Ukraine are united. As part of a rocket funded by US taxpayers to produce an independent US launch capability. Nice.
Well, so much for the commercial side. The military obviously have their own launch requirements. Spy satellites to keep an eye on enemies old and new. Russia for example. This has historically been defined as specialised work and only one supplier of launch services has been determined to have the ability to do it, United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Boeing. They have enjoyed an absolute monopoly on military launches since the demise of the Shuttle. Fortunately, their rocket, the venerable Atlas 5 (that pre-dates the Shuttle era) is still available. Unfortunately, it uses Russian engines. Yep, every spy satellite now launched on top of an Atlas 5, gets to orbit courtesy of Russian engines.
All very expensive, all politically embarrassing. So the government, not unreasonably,instructed the military that it should put some of their upcoming flights to competitive bidding. This would reduce reliance on the Russians, and by avoiding a sole supplier, reduce the cost to the taxpayer. Reluctantly, the military then began a tortuous, multi-year process of certifying the only other possible supplier, the SpaceX Falcon 9. It should be noted, that the Atlas 5 never had to undergo any such certification process. As the F9 continued to succeed and pass the hurdles to become a bidder for military operation, the air Force pre-ordered a big batch of future Atlas 5 flights from ULA, cutting out SpaceX from the opportunity to bid and circumventing the competition process. At astronomical cost.
Enter Elon Musk, stage right. He pointed out that by now, his company had flown several successful F9 missions, including Dragon ones to the ISS and two to the same kind of orbit that the military typically needs. In doing this, SpaceX had demonstrated that the military needs were not that unique, and they were well able to handle them. He pointed out that if the military had ordered the same batch of flights from SpaceX that they had now ordered from ULA, the taxpayer would have just saved $15 billion. Now, it's all relative, but that is quite a lot of money.
Then Russia annexes Crimea and the US responds by placing sanctions on key Russians that it deemed to be directly involved. One of whom is the Deputy Prime Minister, whose responsibilities include overseeing the manufacturers of the Russian made Atlas 5 engines. Woops. Mr Musk now lobs in a grenade with the pin removed. He asks a Federal Judge to issue an injunction preventing further purchases of these engines. The Judge is persuaded that giving taxpayers money, to a man on the sanctioned list, in order to get engines from a banned country, with which to launch US classified satellites, designed to spy on said country, is not entirely reasonable. He issues the injunction. Embarrassing.
The government, presumably under some pressure from the military, decide the Deputy PM is a fine upstanding citizen after all and overturn the injunction. To which the aforementioned upstanding citizen says “Tough, we will no longer sell you engines for use with your military satellites.” Ouch. He goes on to say “And good luck with getting your astronauts to and from the ISS. Perhaps you should build a bigger trampoline”. I'm not making this up.
Which leads us back to the issue of people. Following the unqualified success of producing an independent commercial cargo programme, NASA embarks on a commercial crew programme. The three contractors who win some money to develop their concepts are SpaceX (no surprise, they already have a proven capsule in Dragon), DreamChaser (a small shuttle type of craft) and Boeing who have a conventional capsule design. All good you might think. Until you remember that Boeing are one of the two companies that form the United Launch Alliance who run the Atlas 5 programme. Hopefully, the US will have a non-Russian way of getting people into space again by 2017. Except of course that DreamChaser and the Boeing vehicles would be launched on guess what? Yep, good old, Russian engine powered Atlas 5's.
In the meantime, with all this time on its hands, what has NASA been doing? Glad you asked. Instead of Apollo on steroids, they have gone for Shuttle on steroids. There's progress. The key difference is that unlike the Shuttle, this will not be reusable. It will use stretched solid rocket motors based on the shuttle ones (yes the one that failed...) and two of the Shuttle Main Engines. There is only one intsy problem. There were four shuttles, with three main engines on each. That's 12 engines, but because the new launcher is not reusable, once you use, you lose. There are only enough engines available for six flights of the new, very expensive launcher. Given that they will have at least one test flight, that's a total of five real flights. After that, maybe it will be back to Russian engines...
So what are they going to launch on these five flights? The Orion spacecraft. A deep-space capable, capsule style design, built under contract by Lockheed Martin. Yep, that's the Lockheed Martin who are the partner to Boeing in the United Launch Alliance; the Boeing that is being paid as part of the commercial contract to design a capsule type spacecraft similar to Orion. You have to love the American definition of competition...
Still, it will be nice to have NASA flying astronauts again They won't need Orion to fly to the ISS because that will be the role of the winner of the commercial crew contract. So they are building this amazing launcher and deep-space capsule to go to... yep. That's right. They don't know. Possibly the moon, but probably not. Maybe to an Asteroid, but possibly not. Definitely not Mars. The only flight so far agreed is one that swings around the moon and comes straight back. So, only having enough for five flights may actually be ok. Their vision only needs enough engines for one 'mission'.
Is there a bright spot we can focus on? Well, Elon Musk has stated that the aim of SpaceX is to colonise Mars. Crazy eh? A private company with clear ambition? But outrageous, surely, to think they could succeed where national governments have failed?
Well, maybe, but there were many who didn't believe a private company could design, build and launch to orbit at all. Then they said they wouldn't be able to get a spacecraft to the ISS. They've done it four times now. When SpaceX won a contract to launch a commercial satellite to the military orbit, 22,000 miles above the earth, there were many who said the complexity was beyond SpaceX. They have succeeded each time. When SpaceX announced they were designing a reusable version of their first stage, by flying it back to the launch pad, like Thunderbird 1, many laughed out loud. But their 'grasshopper' test vehicle has flown to 1km altitude and back to ground with landing legs. The last F9 flight was the first production rocket to launch with landing legs and successfully 'landed' into the sea. By the end of next year they are on course to fly an F9 that has previously been flown and returned safely. Within a year they expect to have flown a crewed version of the Dragon. In the same timeframe they will have launched the F9 Heavy – three Falcon 9 rockets strapped together, developing more thrust than any rocket since the Apollo Saturn 5, and similar to the launch capability that NASA is building, only two years earlier. Nobody is laughing any more.
Until they heard that SpaceX were developing the 'Raptor' engine, based on liquid oxygen and methane. It would be the most powerful rocket engine ever developed, with nine of them powering the worlds biggest ever rocket, capable of sending 100 tons to Mars. It would use methane because you can produce that on the moon or the surface of Mars, from the rocks already there. Lots of laughter.
Until they announced they had leased the large rocket engine test stand from NASA. To begin component tests of the new engine, starting, well, today.