What Will Follow the Space Shuttle?
With the final flight of Atlantis this weekend, the Space Shuttle program has officially come to an end after 30 years. It doesn’t have to mean the end of manned space flight however. There are plenty of spacecraft from the past, present, and future that could replace the shuttle. Let's take a look at some of them.
The VentureStar was the proposed replacement for the shuttle for most of the 90s. Its large V shape would have let it carry enough fuel to blast off without rocket boosters, but it was eventually cut for budgetary reasons (and maybe because Congress thought it looked fat?).
The Rockwell X-30 was a joint project with NASA and the Air Force that was going to be able to make it into space from a conventional runway. It produced a lot of great concept art but, like a lot of these, it was canceled before it ever got off the ground.
The Kliper was Russia’s answer to the Space Shuttle, and it shows in the design. The weird-looking mutant brother of our shuttle was canceled in 2006.
Stabilo is a suborbital craft developed by a European team called ARCA. The craft’s *ahem* unique design allows it to be powered by a chemical reaction that, the designers promise, will make it more reliable than other spacecraft but at the moment it’s still just a concept.
Heat 1X Tycho Brahe
The Tycho Brahe may look like just another boring rocket, but it’s a lot more impressive when you realize that it’s the result of an entirely amateur effort. Despite no corporate or government funding, the project has already had a successful test launch.
The Rocketplane XP was a proposed commercial craft that would be powered by both jets and rockets. If you think a space ship that looks like a private jet sounds too good to be true, you’re right. The company went belly up in 2010.
The Dream Chaser is another privately developed spacecraft set to take off in the next few years. While it hasn’t made a flight yet, the Dream Chaser team has actually built the basic frame for its ship, which is a lot further than many of these projects get.
SpaceShipTwo: the commercial spacecraft from the mind of eccentric billionaire owner of the Virgin Group Richard Branson, ready to take you to space for just $200,000 per person. This weird-looking plane is probably the most successful attempt at a suborbital craft for consumers, but it’s still got a lot of tests to go and another model (SpaceShipThree) to be built before it’ll take you out of the atmosphere.
What the Dragon capsule lacks in flash, it makes up for in results. This little guy is the first, and so far only, spacecraft launched into orbit and recovered by a private company (SpaceX, the developers of the Dragon capsule). That pedigree has even gotten it business from NASA.
Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle
And here’s the craft that NASA is expected to build to replace the shuttle. While it may not look like much (okay, let’s be honest it doesn’t look like much), the plan is for it to land on an asteroid and on the moon. The space shuttle certainly couldn’t do that.