Space Flight, after the Shuttle

By Robert L. Howard, Ph.D., Director of the NSBE Space Special Interest Group


NSBE’s Aaron Olson and Robert L. Howard onboard the Deep Space Habitat


NASA’s Space Exploration Vehicle


NASA’s Deep Space Habitat

On July 21, 2011, the Space Shuttle Atlantis touched down to a safe landing and rolled to a stop at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, ending a 30-year spacecraft program. The shuttle has become the symbol of the U.S. in space, perhaps even more popular than the Apollo lunar landers of the late 1960s and early ’70s. NASA’s five shuttles were the first reusable spacecraft. They set numerous records and flew the majority of the nation’s astronauts into space. They launched and recovered satellites, conducted scientific research in nearly every technical discipline and assembled the International Space Station, the world’s largest and most complex orbiting space structure.

But now that the space shuttle is retired, what is the future of U.S. space flight?

NSBE members Aaron Olson and Robert L. Howard, Ph.D. are among the many people finding answers to that question. This summer, they joined a team of more than 150 engineers, scientists and astronauts sent by NASA to a desert camp 40 miles north of Flagstaff, Ariz. Team members came from nine NASA centers, the military, industry and academia to test new ideas for launching a mission beyond the Earth-Moon system to an asteroid. Dr. Howard led a group that conducted human factors studies of the test team and several spacecraft under development, including NASA’s Space Exploration Vehicle (SEV) and the Deep Space Habitat (DSH). 

The SEV is a high-mobility vehicle that can house a crew of two for up to two weeks. It is now being considered for use on an asteroid. By replacing its wheels with small rockets, it can fly around an asteroid, enabling the crew to get up close and personal with these gigantic rocks.

The Deep Space Habitat is a living and working module for a crew of four. The prototype being testing in Arizona is composed of multiple components: an airlock, a laboratory or core module, a hygiene module and an inflatable loft.

Without a space shuttle, the U.S. government no longer has the ability to send people beyond the atmosphere. So to solve that problem, NASA is trying to help commercial industry develop the launch capabilities that NASA pioneered. New companies such as Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX), Blue Origin and Sierra Nevada Corporation, and familiar companies such as United Launch Alliance and The Boeing Company are all expected to be involved in human spaceflight. These organizations are developing vehicles to send crew and cargo to the International Space Station, which will continue to orbit the Earth at least through 2020.

The nation’s space program is continually looking forward to the future with bold, new endeavors, and members of NSBE are part of the mission.