The final Apollo flight to the moon, Apollo 17, happened in December, 1972. Skylab, America’s first space station was launched the very next year, in 1973. Built from a modified third stage of a Saturn V moon rocket, it had 10,000 cubic feet of pressurized volume (compared to the Russian Mir, launched years later, with 12,360 cubic feet and the current International Space Station with about 30,000 cubic feet). Over the next year, Skylab was visited three times by American astronauts flying on Apollo spaceships of the same sort that had taken people to the moon. The final Skylab crew left the orbiting laboratory in February 1974.
In July 1975, the last Apollo mission flew into orbit to dock with a Soviet Soyuz in order to test a common docking system and to score some political points. With that joint flight with the Soviets, American manned space travel came to an end. Six long years would pass before another American would venture into space.
Our first space station, Skylab, was never visited again. It fell ingloriously to Earth, crashing into Australia southeast of Perth in 1979. Meanwhile, during those six years between 1975 and 1981, the Soviet Union launched twenty-one Soyuz missions and maintained three space stations sequentially in orbit (Salyut 4, 5 and 6)
For six years, the United States had had no way to launch human beings into space. And we could do nothing to prevent the destruction of our first space station.
The first American Space Shuttle was not launched until 1981.
Today, with the end of the Space Shuttle, some commentators talk as if the American space program is coming to an end. That is simply nonsense. The current hiatus following the last flight of the Space Shuttle will be nothing like that era of the 1970s.
The reason for the American hiatus following the moon missions was a failure of will and money; neither the U.S. Congress nor President Richard Nixon had much interest in the space program. The current hiatus is again the responsibility of a president, specifically George W. Bush. The reasons are somewhat better, though a lack of money and will once again plays a significant role.
A commission investigating the disintegration of Columbia on its return flight from space in 2003 recommended that the Space Shuttle program be ended, so that it could be replaced with a new system by 2016. So the Bush administration formally ordered the termination of the Shuttle program by 2011 at the latest. The Bush administration designed what it called the Constellation program to replace it: a system that would take humans back to the moon and eventually Mars. The Bush administration thought that the money that had been going to the Shuttle program could be freed up for their new Constellation Program. The five year gap between the end of the Shuttle and the first launch of Constellation would be filled by purchasing seats on Russian Soyuz spaceships. However, the Constellation program was severely underfunded even so and billions were spent with nothing much to show for it.
Therefore, the Obama administration decided to cancel Constellation and go with a private sector solution. Several competing companies have been given seed money to help them pay for the development of human crewed spacecraft: SpaceX, Sierra Nevada Corporation, Blue Origin, Orbital Sciences Corporation, and Boeing. SpaceX is ahead in the game, with their now proven Dragon spaceship that has successfully been launched on their Falcon 9 and recovered from orbit. By 2015–ahead of the original schedule for Bush’s now cancelled Constellation program–SpaceX and perhaps the other corporations are hoping to be flying their Shuttle replacements. So, rather than a single vehicle going to space ferrying humans from the United States, there are likely to be several. And they will do it for a fraction of what the Space Shuttle cost.
Meanwhile, the International Space Station will remain in orbit, continuously staffed by six astronauts, both American and Russian, with an occasional European or Japanese astronaut. Americans will still be going into space during the gap between the end of the Shuttle program and the beginning of the commercial era.
It is, in the final analysis, a good thing that the era of the government monopoly in human crewed access to space is coming to a conclusion. Between 2004, when the Constellation program began and 2010, when it was finally terminated, NASA spent more than two billion dollars and never produced any flight ready hardware. In contrast, a single corporation, SpaceX, spent only 800 million dollars between 2002 and 2010. With that 800 million dollars they managed to design two entirely new rockets, the Falcon 1 and the Falcon 9. They then launched those rockets multiple times. They built launch pads and mission control infrastructure. Since then, they’ve launched four Falcon 9s into orbit, along with three Dragons, two of which took cargo to the International Space Station. All of that, and they spent just 800 million dollars. And they made a profit.
Unsurprisingly, SpaceX now has a 1.2 billion dollar contract from NASA to supply 12 cargo missions to the International Space Station with their Dragon Spacecraft. They’ve done one of them, and that Dragon is currently still attached to the ISS. Space X is hoping to launch people in in a Dragon by 2015. Remember: SpaceX is not the only commercial company expecting to fly people into space. There are at least four other companies aiming for the same destination. Both Boeing, with their CST-100 and Sierra Nevada Corporation, with their space plane, Dream Chaser, expect to be ferrying astronauts to orbit no later than 2016.
The final Space Shuttle landed on Thursday, July 21, 2011, just before six AM at the Kennedy Space Center. After 30 years of service, the Shuttle era has ended and the shuttles are now either at or on their way to museums. But the American manned space program will carry on and the future is bright.