US is on Clock to Return to Orbit

Boeing, ULA work to reset manned launch capabilities

Written by Todd Halvorson
At the north end of Cape Canaveral Air Force Station is a launch complex where unmanned Atlas rockets blast off with super-secret national-security satellites.Four towering lightning protection masts surround the pad, which also has been the embarkation point for robotic NASA spacecraft flying missions to the moon, Mars, Jupiter and Pluto.

Mike Leinbach looks out over the landscape and envisions something else: American astronauts riding an elevator to the top of a 22-story crew access tower, crossing a swing arm, and then boarding a U.S. spacecraft atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket.

Fifty-one years after Alan Shepard’s inaugural U.S. human spaceflight, America no longer is capable of launching its own astronauts into orbit.

NASA’s shuttle orbiters are ensconced in museums. And in a post-Cold War irony, the U.S. is reliant on Russia to fly astronauts into space.

“This is going to happen. We are going to put American astronauts into orbit on American rockets again,” said Leinbach, 59, the longtime NASA shuttle launch director who now is director of human space flight operations for ULA. “It’s just a question of time.”

The clock is ticking. Literally for Chris Ferguson, the veteran U.S. astronaut who commanded the last space shuttle mission and is on a short list to command the first piloted test flight of the Boeing spacecraft being developed to carry U.S. crews.

Ferguson tracks “Mission Elapsed Time,” or MET, a measure of days, hours and minutes since liftoff of an American manned space mission, on his Omega Speedmaster X-33, the watch of choice for U.S. astronauts.

At 11:29 a.m. EDT today, the Mission Elapsed Time on his watch will reach 507 days — 507 days since liftoff of Atlantis, NASA’s final shuttle mission and the end, temporarily, of America’s manned launch capability.

Ferguson has no plans to reset his MET tracker until liftoff of the Boeing CST-100’s test flight atop an Atlas V rocket, which is being targeted for 2016.



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