CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. —
The current compromise has NASA putting some money into both approaches. SpaceX will deliver the first commercially launched cargo to the space station later this year. SpaceX believes it can be ready to carry astronauts in an upgraded version of the same capsule by 2014.
The NASA-developed capsule, Orion, won’t be ready to fly before 2016 at the earliest. The gap in U.S. access to space may be just a few years, but it could be longer depending on how much funding the development programs receive.
“It will be difficult to shorten the gap without the funds we have requested” in this year’s NASA budget, NASA Deputy Aministrator Lori Garver said.
Nevertheless, “we believe we will be going further, faster with our next generation of spacecraft,” she said.
On the ground
Here in Florida, the mood of the shuttle workforce is proud but sober. Two years ago, 12,000 engineers, technicians and other support staff were employed at Kennedy Space Center to maintain the shuttle fleet.
In just a few months, as the program winds down, there will be only about 1,000.
Most of those workers are hoping to find new employment working on a shuttle replacement.
The first shuttle, Columbia, took off from the same launch pad on April 12, 1981, 20 years to the day after Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space.
In the years since, shuttles have carried nearly 3.5 million pounds of cargo into orbit — more than half the tonnage lofted into space by all nations since Sputnik opened the Space Age in 1957.
The shuttles have carried 356 astronauts into space, many of them on several flights; launched the Hubble Space Telescope and many planetary probes; retrieved stranded satellites and brought them back to earth for relaunch; delivered classified Department of Defense satellites to orbit; visited the Russian Mir Space Station and built the International Space Station.