The future of the US space program


NASA Space Program-2020-science-technology-2 That’s what the mysterious gods of Arthur C. Clarke’s Space Odyssey were warning about the Jovian satellite, which we’ve been looking for for decades. Because there, under the thick layer of a few kilometers of ice on its surface, there is a warm and salty ocean with more water than we have here on Earth, even if Europe is smaller than our Moon.

And there, within Europe, it is one of the best places to look for life forms beyond our planet. The proximity of the giant Jupiter makes it difficult to explore Europe, but not impossible.

And NASA is planning, along with its private and international partners, a transport infrastructure that will allow us to reach the Moon more easily on Mars, even beyond Mars, on Europe and beyond.

The new American space flight

One of NASA’s best decisions in recent years has been to support the private sector, surrender part of its attributions and finance companies with cosmic ambitions. That’s how a new space-based private space race has begun between American billionaires.

NASA Space Program-2020-science-engineering-3 They are trying to come up with the most efficient solutions: from new missiles, made entirely with American technologies (Falcon 9, New Shepard, Vulcan), to modern engines that take advantage of technological advances, being reusable, reliable and performing Merlin, BE-4, Raptor) or capsules and vehicles for future crews (Dragon, CST-100, Dream Chaser).

SpaceX innovations have forced Colossians such as the United Launch Alliance to give up the convenience of contracts with the state (and Americans have such issues) and to innovate. When NASA came up with the idea of ​​financing private partners, the idea was to create a healthy and sustainable orbital ecosystem that would allow the US space agency to focus on Mars.

But the road to Mars proved more cumbersome than anticipated, and private companies caught the taste of space missions, they realized it was a place of profit, and they wanted more than Earth’s orbit. They want to go beyond it, they want in the cis-lunar space, they want to asteroids, and they do not think they can be stopped.

Cis-lunar space

The United Launch Alliance talks about CisLunar-1000, a plan that, within the next 30 years, no less than a thousand people have jobs in the space between the Earth and the Moon. That is, either in the orbit of the Earth, in the orbit or the surface of the Moon, or somewhere between the Earth and the Moon.

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The tool they want to do is the new Vulcan launcher, equipped with a revolutionary secondary step (called ACES), which will remain for a long time in the Earth’s orbit where it will be replenished and where it will perform a wide range of missions . Vulcan will gradually replace the current ULA missile, Atlas V and Delta IV (Heavy version).

NASA Space Program-2020-science-technology-5 We already know that SpaceX targets Mars, but before they get there, they want to take on tourists to walk around the moon. Jeff Bezos dreams of a Earth-Moon transport system for the construction of future human crew bases. And he’s not just dreaming, he’s even working on the new missiles and engines that will help him see his dream come true: New Glenn and New Armstrong, along with the BE-4 methane propeller. And recently, Jeff Bezos has become the second richest man in the world, so he has something to finance his dreams.

Robert Bigelow promises us orbital hotels and bases built from its inflatable modules that can create orbital hotels or can be attached to classic space stations. Even the European Space Agency speaks of a village on a monthly basis, although it does not yet provide details.

Where is NASA in this equation?

Well, the US space agency has big plans. Well, not very big, but at least realistic. To understand NASA’s position and its future direction, let’s see the situation it is currently in.

After the Apollo program, NASA funds have been significantly reduced, along with a decrease in public support for space activities. With no choice, engineers abandoned plans for Mars and turned their attention to the Earth’s orbit.

NASA Space Program-2020-science-engineering-6 The space shuttle, whose first flight took place in 1980, was supposed to be a vehicle that would give us fast access to orbit, but the costs never dropped to a satisfactory level. However, the space shuttle was one of the important pieces in the construction of the International Space Station, perhaps the most successful engineering project in history.

For nearly 17 years, we have a crew aboard the station, which is spanning the planet at an altitude of about 400 km, something unprecedented in history. However, the components of the International Space Station have a limited life span and the wear that accumulates makes it impossible to use them beyond the end of the next decade.

What’s next to the International Space Station?

Plans for a new asceticisation and building a permanent monthly basis have been canceled nearly a decade ago when the Obama administration laid the foundations for a new launcher, now called SLS: Space Launch System. Almost curious, the new White House administration promised to continue it, which, for the sake of continuity, is a good thing.

SLS – Space Launch System

SLS is to be comparable to Saturn V, both in size and mass as it can climb orbit. The rocket will incorporate some of the elements of the previous program: the RS-25 engines used and the space shuttle, along with the two side boosters, which will help the rocket in the first part of the flight.

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Because the spacecraft re-engineered the engines, the first SLS will be equipped with the engines used in the past, but this time they will not be recovered. Over time, they will move to a cheaper version of them, which will not include facilities for re-use.

At the end of 2015, Aerojet Rocketdyne announced that it resumed production of RS-25 engines, following a contract with NASA worth $ 1.6 billion. The two solid fuel side boosters will be made in the first phase of the Orbital ATK and will be composed of five segments, compared to four in the space shuttle, thus developing higher power.

This is the first time that new, modern, variable power and solid or liquid fuel boosters will be developed in the future (depending on the manufacturer who will win the competition). Incidentally, if the spacecraft had three RS-25 engines (also called SSME – Space Shuttle Main Engines), SLS will have four such engines.

Rockets of the Year 2020

SLS (NASA): 130 tonnes


FALCON 9 (SPACEX): 23 tones


VULCAN (ULA): 30 tones



ANGARA 5 (ROSCOSMOS): 24 tonnes

CHANGZHENG 5 (CNSA): 25 tonnes

CHANGZHENG 9 (CNSA): 130 tonnes

The first SLS is actually an outer spacecraft reservoir, modified to fit the secondary gear in the upper part and the engines directly in its lower part (in the case of the shuttle, it was a simple tank storing the fuel, the engines being placed in the bottom of the orbital vehicle) and will have a diameter of 8.4 meters (Saturn V has just over 10 meters).

From the third stage we start the differences between the SLS models that will be available, because we will have a developer evolution from a small Block 1 model (able to climb 70 tons per orbit) to Block 2 to launch 130 tons, 10 less than Saturn V).

Block 1 will only be used on the first flight scheduled for the end of 2018 and which might (or may not) include a crew. The first SLS will have the role of placing the Orion capsule in orbit using a secondary stage of the Delta IV rocket propelled by a single RL10B-2 engine.

NASA said it is currently exploring the possibility that Exploration Mission 1, as it was called the 2018 mission, would be a replication of Apollo 8 mission in 1968, and so a human crew would take a detour of the moon, exactly 50 years away.

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But it will be problematic, because only once was a crew launched in the first flight of a new vehicle, and this happened on April 12, 1980, on the first flight of Columbia. Typically, crewed vehicles are pre-tested to not endanger the lives of astronauts.

NASA Space Program-2020-science-technology-9 The second SLS, called Block 1B (Crew or Cargo), also contains a new stage called the Exploration Upper Stage (EUS), propelled by four RL-10 engines powered by hydrogen and liquid fuel. The Orion Capsule for crew flights or a useful meal for cargo flights will be placed above the EUS.

The third iteration, Block 2, will use a set of two boosters developed specifically for SLS, thus giving up the boosters inherited from the space shuttle. Only in this variant will SLS achieve maximum performance and will be able to transport 130 tons of space.

The initial plans were that the second mission, Exploration Mission 2, would be that of a crew investigating an asteroid captured in advance and placed in the moon’s orbit (the ARM – Asteroid Recovery Mission), but this idea was dropped to do instead of a more ambitious plan: Deep Space Gateway.

NASA Space Program-2020-science-technical-10 But before that, imagine that such a SLS Block 1B cargo rack will be used in 2022 to send a probe to Europe. The mission was recently promoted at the advanced design stage, which means that it is on a safe road to full financing.

Europa Clipper will contain, among other things, a lander, a small robot that will descend on the frozen surface of the satellite. It will be one of the most ambitious space exploration missions, and even if we can not study ocean hidden by miles of ice, we will have the highest quality data on one of the bodies in the quoted solar system as most likely to host life.

And the possibilities offered by SLS are enormous: from probes sent to hell on Venus, at monthly bases or missions to Mars, because this is the final destination. But before we get to Mars, we’ll have to practice the complex space missions a little closer to Earth.

NASA Space Program-2020-science-technical-11 SLS is not a good-looking project of the entire aeronautical community. That’s because it’s a very expensive government project, but at the same time it has survived the various White House and Congress administrations because it still offers jobs in many US states.

An SLS launch is set to cost half a billion dollars, much to compare with SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy prices: $ 90 million for 54 tons orbiting. Three Falcon Heavy launches would overtake an SLS launch and cost about half of its price.

At a time when the entire space community is talking about reuse, SLS does not contain any reusable element. What’s more, he’s going to use it once and then throw out the RD-25 engines, used several times in space shuttle flights.

Deep Space Gateway

Exploration of the solar system with robotic probes is being carried out successfully at this time, but there are some of us who want to have people there in space, to have human presence beyond the last frontier. Deep Space Gateway (DSG) will be the next chapter in space exploration after the International Space Station will be overwhelmed to be used.

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Supported by SLS and partly by the private sector, Deep Space Gateway is to be a new space station, this time much smaller than the current International Space Station, but to be placed in orbit around the Moon! Rumors of Deep Space Gateway have already emerged since 2017, and NASA has recently confirmed that it is working intensely on such a project, supported by both the political environment and international partners.


ORION has survived the Constellation program, formerly SLS. The first test flight took place in December 2014 when it was launched by a Delta IV Heavy rocket in orbit around the Earth. It requires at least 2 astronauts to fly in space and can accommodate up to 6. The current version can not reach Mars, so it will be NASA’s main vehicle in the cis-lunar space, to be used for missions to the Space Station International, as well as for the future Deep Space Gateway.

PTK / FEDERATSIYA will replace the legendary Soyuz capsule. Part of the new Russian space program, together with Vostochny and new Angara launchers, PTK / Federatsiya should be able to carry out the first two unmanned test flights between 2022 and 2023, and in 2024 we will see the first astronauts on board. PTK / Federatsiya is also part of Russia’s plans to reach the Moon sometime around 2030. The capsule can launch between 4 and 6 astronauts, unlike 3, the maximum capacity of the current Soyuz capsule.

DRAGON 2 is the improved version of the Dragon capsule, currently used by SpaceX to power the International Space Station. Dragon 2 will also be able to carry a human crew (no more than 7 astronauts) and the first flight is scheduled for 2018 or 2019, also to the International Space Station, being the first time since 2011 (the last space shuttle flight) when the United States will launch people in space.

CST-100 STARLINER is a Boeing capsule, also part of the commercial program supported by NASA to launch astronauts to the Space Station. The first flights are scheduled several months after Dragon 2, or 2018 or 2019. The CST-100 will be able to spend 60 days in orbit or over 200 days if it is docked and connected to a power source and will be able to host the 7 astronauts.

Shenzhou or “divine vehicle” is the capsule used by China since 1999. Since then, 11 such capsules have been built and there are no signs of being replaced in the near future by another model. The docking system allows coupling with the current International Space Station, although for political reasons this has not happened so far. It can carry up to 3 astronauts and its design is similar to that of the Russian Soyuz capsule.

The first module is due to be launched in 2023 when an Orion capsule will be placed around the Moon and will carry a crew that will operate the so-called Power and Propulsion Bus (PPB). It is equipped with solar panels and will provide the electricity required for the operation of the future space station.

In the next two years (2025-2026) two more main modules will be attached, where the crew will spend most of their time, but also the necessary cabs for docking other vehicles, such as the new Russian PTK / Federatsiya (replacing Soyuz) commercial capsules (there is no reason why Dragon or CST-100 capsules can not perform missions to DSG, although NASA has not officially announced it).

The two habitat modules will be built by NASA, along with its traditional partners: one with Russia, another with the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Japanese (JAXA). The modules will have 7 tons and together they will be able to host a crew of 4 astronauts, to be launched by SLS or the new Angara 5 rocket.

NASA has not yet determined what solution to adopt for cargo transportation to the new station, but it is possible to turn to the private sector. Unlike the International Space Station, DSG will not be permanently inhabited by a human crew due to its smaller size and greater distance from Earth.

The DSG will surround the moon in an oblong orbit, being always between 1,500 and 70,000 km of its surface. From here they will be able to send probes or robots even on the unseen side of the Moon, or why they will not be able to fly to Lagrange L2, where the new space telescope James Webb, another mammoth NASA project, so far over 8 billion dollars.

The crew will most likely spend 90 days aboard the DSG before returning home. In addition to traditional partners, NASA hopes that the new station will be a new example of international collaboration and will include a Chinese module this time, even if China hopes to have its own space station in the Earth’s orbit, Tiangon -3.

Using the Deep Space Gateway as the starting point, future crews will be able to sink in various directions: to the Moon, the most handy, but also to Mars or the asteroids rich in precious metals or who knows what other destinations.

Most energy required for an interplanetary mission is used to get into orbit, and after 2020 this will be solved by a diverse infrastructure: SLS, Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy, Vulcan along with Blue Origin rockets. In the Earth’s orbit, we will have ACES secondary stages ready to fuel the future cosmic ships that will go to asteroids or Mars, either from our neighborhood or from the Deep Space Gateway.

Although the future space programs seem fragmented, it is probably the effect of collaborative evolution, both in the international field and the leap of the private environment on the net. We no longer have national monolithic programs, we have collaborations that open up plenty of opportunities beyond the Earth’s orbit.

Keep an eye on the stars, the space will become extremely busy in the next period, because I have passed the romantic era, and I have begun pragmatic exploitation of the resources offered by the cosmos.

Mars? Not yet

In online social media, NASA has greatly reduced the key words about mission to Mars lately. Probably after 2030, it will send a crew to bypass the red planet, after a detour and Venus, for extra speed.

NASA Space Program-2020-science-technical-13 The downhill ride on Mars is less and I think it was postponed again, probably for the 2040s. Until then, NASA will really explore space beyond the Earth’s orbit.

It will spend more time in space away from home, and so we will learn to keep away from cosmic radiation, develop technologies and propulsion that will make our way to Mars safer and faster. We will learn to soften asteroids, exploit resources, build new technologies, and maybe we will return to the moon, this time to stay there as we currently have research stations in Antarctica.

And when we are ready, some of you will leave everything behind and head for Mars. Only then will our space adventure really begin. Always cautious, NASA will find that it does not reach Mars first and that others will take it forward. He lost the start of the space race because he was cautious, but eventually won it away.

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