What's Next for US Space Travel?

Why the Retirement of the Shuttle Program in 2011?

What follows the end of the Space Shuttle program for the United States? Is the United States still going to take part in the race to space? Why did the Space Shuttle program come to an end in 2011?

A bit of history helps recognize the accomplishments and design of the Space Shuttle program. The current Space Shuttle program began in 1960, and when created, an ending date of 2011 was part of the plan. The five spectacular Space Shuttles were to complete construction of the International Space Station  and then retire by that 2011 date. Plans were there for what was to happen next. The idea of extending the space shuttle program bantered about, but President George W. Bush kept the mandatory retirement date.

The shuttle orbital vehicles were all designed to carry between five and seven astronauts although eight traveled on some missions. A vertical launch sent the winged vehicles into space. Upon return to earth, the shuttles moved themselves out of orbit to re-enter the earth's atmosphere. Unlike previous rockets, the Space Shuttles advertised as the traveling craft that would be capable of multiple flights. The flight missions varied in purpose. The spacecraft delivered and retrieved payloads from the International Space Station and recovered and returned satellites.

Space Shuttle Program

Contractors built a total of five shuttles; Columbia, Challenger, Endeavor, Discovery, and Atlantis. Columbia and Challenger were both destroyed in accidents with a total loss of 14 astronauts between the two missions. Three shuttles exist out of the five built, and museums in Florida, New York, and California won bids for housing those vehicles upon their retirement.

Plans indicated the successor to the program was Project Constellation with Aries 1 and Aries V launch vehicles and the Orion Spacecraft. In 2010, President Obama asked Congress for a scaled back plan due to cost, management, and safety concerns. Those plans are no longer on track.

Few say that United States will back out of space exploration. The winding down of the Space Shuttle program does present challenges. The end of the shuttle flights affects the famous Hubble Telescope. The plan was for the Hubble to return to earth via a Space Shuttle mission and then housed at a Smithsonian exhibit. With no space shuttle available to make that retrieval, the telescope will most likely not be returning to earth. What about the trips to the International Space Station heard about in the news so often? The thought is to "hitch" a ride via a Russian mission. Time will tell on that one. Surely, the next stops in an uncertain space program are locations even beyond the moon. Budgets are tough, but surely that will happen.  A good indicator is the astronaut training program continues at NASA post Space Shuttle retirement.  Stay tuned.