What will happen when astronauts no longer fly on the space shuttle?

Dragon spacecraft SpaceX owns this picture

Dragon Spacecraft Credit: SpaceX

There are only five Space Shuttle flights left on NASA’s schedule. Since 1982, astronauts have traveled into low-Earth orbit aboard the workhorse of NASA’s space program. With the exception of the Hubble repair mission earlier this year, the remaining flights have all been focused on adding to and upgrading the International Space Station. However, as it stands, after 2010 the United States will need to look for a new way to push humans up Earth’s gravity well.

NASA’s Constellation program is hard at work with development of the Orion. Designed to serve as a vehicle for the trip to the ISS and to lunar orbit, Orion and the entire Constellation is currently under review by the Obama administration. In October of this year, the Augustine commission delivered a set of options to the President that will help shape the future of American human space flight. By the commission’s estimate, Orion will at best be ready in 2016, leaving the US with a six year gap in operations.

Six years is a long drought. So what alternate options are available?

In addition to the shuttle, the Russian Soyuz and Progress spacecraft have been regular visitors to the ISS. And in the coming US space flight gap, NASA is looking at $51 million USD per person for any trips on Soyuz. In the past two years, the Europeans and the Japanese have developed remotely-operated transfer vehicles. However, the new ships are currently only cargo-rated.

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