The future of space missions.

National Geographic’s Map of the Day is this very cool zoomable poster of every known robotic space exploration overlaid on a map of the solar system.  Zoom in and trace the paths of every space mission. Check out the New Horizons mission: launched in 2006, expected to reach Pluto’s orbit by July 2015!

Thanks, Bart and John, for pointing us to this site!

And, here’s Bart, with a look at the shaky future of U.S. manned space missions.

What’s the Future of the International Space Station?

Did you know that we have a 500,000-pound space station in orbit around the Earth? That it’s taken 11 years to build it? That the U.S. has paid $44 billion so far for its construction? That the Station, now that it is fully staffed, will be able to perform experiments in biological and material sciences and engineering, which improves our technologies capabilities on Earth, as well as help us learn how to perform long-term exploration missions to the asteroids and Mars.

Be that as it may, on October 12 CNN ran a story titled “How much longer will the space station fly?” which provides some insights into the state of the International Space Station (ISS) and its possible fate. Here are some other mind-boggling facts about ISS for the interested taxpayer:

• The Space Shuttle, America’s only vehicle for sending crews and cargo to ISS will be retired from service in 2010 or perhaps 2011, once all of the station assembly missions are completed.
• The U.S. will not have a launch vehicle to send crews up to ISS after 2011, leaving us to depend on the Russians to send astronauts into space until a successor vehicle is built. The human-rated Ares I crew launch vehicle and Orion crew exploration vehicle are currently scheduled to be operational in 2015.
• The NASA budget does not include funds to keep the ISS operational past 2015, just around the time that Ares I and Orion come online. This would the longest “gap” in American human spaceflight since the end of the Apollo program and the start of the Space Shuttle (1975-1981).
• If NASA doesn’t have the budget to operate and maintain ISS, they’ll have to find some way to deorbit it (cause it to fall back to Earth)—not an easy prospect with a 250-ton space station.
• The U.S. has agreements with its international partners, 15 in all, to keep ISS functioning for at least 10 years after it is completed. If the U.S. does not fulfill that commitment, future cooperative missions with those partners would probably be put in jeopardy.

These are just some of the issues that the Human Space Flight panel, chaired by former Lockheed Martin CEO Norman Augustine, has had to wrestle with for the last few months. That panel is also presenting President Obama with options for what to do with human space exploration beyond low-Earth orbit, something no one has done since 1972. Where do we want to go next? What do we want to do when we get there? What kind(s) of vehicle(s) do we need? These are the questions many within the space community, but few outside of it, have been asking.

So far, the Augustine panel has released a summary report, with its final report due this month. If you’re interested in America’s future in space, the final report deserves your attention because Congress and the President will be basing many of their next decisions about the space program on it.