Getting a Crew into Orbit

By Riddle, Bob | Science Scope, February 2011 | Go to article overview

Getting a Crew into Orbit


Riddle, Bob, Science Scope


Since the first rocket launch into Earth's orbit, the United States and Russia have led the world in developing the technologies to send people into space and were the only countries (until recently) with a crewed space program. However, other countries are now developing resources and applying technologies for the crewed exploration of space. Currently, there are three countries with crewed space programs--United States (NASA), Russia (RKA), and China (CNSA)--and other countries including Japan JAXA), Ecuador (EXA), Malaysia (MNSA), India (ISRO), and Iran (ISA) are at various stages of development with an active crewed space program (but have not launched). Rocket launches to space have taken place at more than 20 launch facilities around the world, scattered at various latitudes, with the ideal locations close to the equator.

In addition to government-sponsored space programs, private companies such as Virgin Galactic and SpaceX are actively involved in developing commercial space programs. The programs include taking space tourists to the suborbital altitude of 100 km, ferrying crews and supplies to the International Space Station, and placing satellites in orbit.

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NASA and the last shuttle missions

This spring marks a milestone of sorts for NASA and our country's crewed space program with the launch of space shuttle Discovery (STS-133) in February, the space shuttle Endeavour (STS-134) during April, and a possible final mission this summer. STS-133 was originally scheduled for launch to the International Space Station (ISS) last November. Due to fuel tank problems, the launch was rescheduled for this month. Its planned 11-day flight will be its 31st mission to Earth orbit, and on this mission it will be delivering the Express Logistics Carrier 4, a Permanent Multipurpose Module, and other equipment and parts to the ISS.

Endeavour's 10-day mission will be our country's 134th shuttle mission, the 36th shuttle flight to the ISS, and possibly the last space shuttle flight for the United States until our country develops an alternate and efficient method for transportation of people and materials to Earth orbit and beyond. This past summer (2010), a final shuttle mission, STS-135, was approved by NASA and Congress and has been tentatively scheduled for launch by the end of June of this year. That mission, if followed through, is described as "launch on need"; if needed, it will transport a small crew of four plus extra supplies and equipment to the ISS. Following STS-135, our country's crewed space program will, for the time being, rely on the Russian space program for transporting crews to Earth orbit. With the European Space Agency, the Russians will also be transporting supplies and equipment to the ISS.

Even without the capabilities of the space shuttle, the ISS and crews will be transported and kept supplied as before. The Russian Space Agency will continue to send supplies and crew members using their Soyuz spacecraft. Soyuz, once docked at the ISS, will serve as the emergency escape vehicle for the ISS crew or as a "garbage truck" to haul away trash from the ISS. In the latter use, the spacecraft and its contents simply burn up as they reenter the Earth's atmosphere. The European Space Agency will also continue sending supplies and other equipment to the ISS onboard their Ariane 5 spacecraft.

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Russian Space Agency

The Russian Federal Space Agency (RKA), or Roscosmos, and the National Space Agency of Ukraine (NSAU) came into being following the breakup of the former Soviet Union. Using what is considered to be one of the most dependable expendable launch vehicles, the Soyuz class rockets, the RKA mostly launches from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. The Baikonur Cosmodrome is not actually near the city of Baikonur, but is located several hundred miles southwest near the city of Tyuratam along the Syr Darya river. …

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