The design of workhorse spacecraft for both the Russian and United States space programs are about to get an overhaul. The designs for these spacecraft have been used for decades, many times with success, but also catastrophic failure.
The well known US space shuttle program is now over 30 years old. Meanwhile, the stable and reliable the Russian Soyuz craft have been around since the 1960s. The Soyuz design is the longest serving manned spacecraft design in existence.
Russia put out a call for a new space plane design known as “Kliper” in 2004. Three proposals were presented each with slight variations. The front runner was a spacecraft design proposal made by RKK Energia. This design featured a swept winged spaceplane that could carry up to six astronauts into orbit and beyond. Like the US space shuttle, Kliper was re-usable and could be flown back to earth, landing like a regular aircraft or glider.
In recent years, the Kliper program has become cash strapped. Only a mockup has been presented to the media and it may be unlikely the design will ever put into operation. However, a private company will attempt to continue developing a prototype with private investments. Kliperit is expected to begin test flights in 2012.
In the meantime, Russia is turning towards European partners to develop two new space craft: the Crew Space Transportation System (CSTS) and the Advanced Crew Transportation System (ACSTS). These spacecraft are still in the drawing board stage, and no true design has been determined. They are not expected to make any sort of a test flight before 2017 based on current funds and development.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) recently unveiled its Orion spacecraft as part of its Constellation program. The Constellation space program will work independently of any European partners, and contains two craft. The Ares launch vehicle, and the crew module called Orion.
The design of the Orion spacecraft is very similar to the Apollo craft of the late 1960s and mid 1970s. Although it looks the same as Apollo on the outside, the craft will be quite larger. The design is all based on new technology on the inside. NASA decided to keep the vintage bell shaped design because it works best for re-entry into the earths atmosphere, an important aspect to allowing astronauts to return safely to earth.
The Orion spacecraft will be used to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station. A combination of the Ares vehicle and Orion will be used for missions to the moon. More advanced versions of Ares and Orion spacecraft are planned for missions to Mars. The first missions to the International Space station for Orion are planned as soon as 2012, with a planned lunar mission set for 2020. Initial flights to the International Space station may be unmanned much like Russian cargo missions that are routinely sent to the International Space station.
In comparing the two different spacecraft, it appears that Orion has the edge in reaching operation sooner, since NASA is more heavily focused on bringing Orion into operation. The main question will be whether funding continues at its current pace, or whether the new administration will cut spending on space exploration in the coming years. Based on current economic trends and statements by the incoming administration, it is likely that plans for Orion coming into operation will be delayed.