What's up for the astronauts?

Image: Voss and Dream Chaser
Former astronaut Jim Voss stands with students around a full-scale model of Sierra Nevada Corp.'s Dream Chaser mini-shuttle, housed inside a hangar at Centennial Airport in Colorado. Voss teaches engineering at the University of Colorado and is also an executive at Sierra Nevada. The UC-Boulder students in the picture include Christine Fanchiang, Taylor Donaldson, Chad Healy and Ben Kemper.Glenn Asakawa / Univ. of Colorado

At the National Space Symposium in Colorado Springs in April, a reporter asked former NASA Administrator Dick Truly, "What do you think about NASA’s space policy?"

The three-star admiral and former astronaut, who helped lead America's space agency through the aftermath of the 1986 Challenger explosion, thought for a moment. Then he answered with bedrock sincerity, choosing his words with deliberate care: "If you can tell me what NASA’s policy is, I'll tell you what I think."

The laughter was slow to fade. Lately it's been hard for NASA to make a decision and stick with it. But Admiral Truly, it's just possible that America’s stumble-along space agency has stumbled upon a pretty good plan for low Earth orbit.

It's true that the retirement of the space shuttle fleet will force American astronauts to ride Russia’s Soyuz spaceships for at least the next few years. But at the same time, U.S. companies are working on space taxis that could start flying Americans to the International Space Station within four years or so.

Low-cost flights from those companies could free up a larger chunk of NASA’s $18 billion-plus yearly budget to spend on NASA’s true purpose: exploring the future routes needed to get our species off Earth when humankind's cradle can no longer sustain life.

Of course, this scenario assumes that we earthlings believe humankind is worth saving. If $18 billion isn’t enough to send astronauts beyond low Earth orbit on Lewis-and-Clark missions, then someone should determine whether NASA’s dollars are just going to political feel-good projects.  

For astronaut rides in low Earth orbit, the space agency currently has four commercial spacecraft under consideration: two capsules, a space plane and a gumdrop spaceship.

They are:

  • Blue Origin, a secretive company founded by Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos. It's working on a gumdrop-shaped capsule to carry astronauts.
  • Sierra Nevada Corp., which is building a reusable Dream Chaser space plane that looks and feels like a mini-space shuttle. The craft is to ride a rocket into orbit, and at the end of its journey it would glide to a runway landing like the space shuttle did.
  • The Boeing Co., the foursome's most experienced aerospace company. Boeing is building an Apollo-style CST-100 capsule, but so far it's behind the newest kid on the block.
  • SpaceX, which was founded nine years ago by dot-com millionaire Elon Musk. The new boys at SpaceX have two successful Cape Canaveral launches under their belt.

SpaceX's most recent launch, which took place last December, shook the space establishment to its roots. The company's privately built rocket, named Falcon 9, did something never done before: It climbed into orbit and then turned loose a privately built spacecraft named Dragon.  Dragon scooted around Earth twice, maneuvering its flight path before parachuting into the eastern Pacific, 500 miles from its flight control center in Hawthorne, Calif.

SpaceX is now getting another Dragon ready to dock with the International Space Station before year’s end.

Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for space operations, told me that NASA is working with SpaceX to combine two test missions into one, with the goal of achieving cargo delivery to the station as soon as possible.

SpaceX has its launch pad, its rocket and its spacecraft humming. If the company succeeds in delivering cargo to the space station, it will be well on its way to flying astronauts to and from the orbiting outpost as early as 2014.

Symbolism abounds in this July 18 image from the International Space Station: Atlantis commander Chris Ferguson speaks to the camera during the last shuttle flight, while NASA space station crew members attach a US. flag to a hatch. The flag flew on the first space shuttle mission in 1981, and will be awarded to the next U.S. crew to be launched to the station from U.S. soil.

Boeing plans to conduct three test flights in 2015: The first flight will be an unmanned orbital trial, the second will be an altitude abort test without astronauts, and the third calls for two Boeing test pilots to fly the CST-100 ship all the way to the space station. When the test flights are finished and regular trips to the space station begin, the commander's seat will be filled by a NASA astronaut rather than a Boeing pilot.

Boeing has the experience and proven rocket and hardware to succeed.  But if this is a race, it currently looks as if SpaceX will beat Boeing to the finish line. Maybe SpaceX will falter, and Boeing will pull ahead. Or maybe one of the other contenders will take the lead. Sierra Nevada, for example, is also targeting 2015 for the start of orbital operations. Meanwhile, Blue Origin is keeping its plans close to the vest, as usual.

Phil McAlister, NASA’s acting director of commercial spaceflight development, told me "it’s not realistic that all four will make it through flight certification, but we’re hopeful there will be more than one."

The space-taxi companies that make it will be bidding for NASA’s two flights to and from the station each year. NASA will be buying seats — four on each flight. Not a large order for a new business.  But there’s always the high-priced space tourist with more money than they can spend. For 10 years, millionaires have been buying rides on Russia's Soyuz spacecraft, and they could serve as a clientele for the new U.S. spaceships as well.

And don’t forget the cargo. The private taxis can haul payloads as well as people.

In this space race, money won't be the only prize. The most meaningful prize awaiting the first crew to cross the finish line is flag, a very special flag. The last space shuttle crew left the prize behind on the space station last month. It's a U.S. flag that flew first on the space shuttle’s maiden voyage, on April 12, 1981. It’s hanging there, .

The next American spacecraft reaching the station will claim the colors and bring them home.   “We want that flag,” says SpaceX.  “We want it too,” says Boeing.

Don’t forget the space family who sent the first humans to another world.  They too want that flag, as do the astronauts of history.  Collectively they want that flag, to heal their disappointment at not having an American spaceship that can fly American astronauts.

The first American to fly into earth orbit, John Glenn, said it simply: "Not having our own spaceship galls me."

NBC News correspondent Jay Barbree is the only journalist to cover every spaceflight flown by astronauts from Cape Canaveral. His latest book is an updated version on which was originally written with astronauts Alan Shepard and Deke Slayton.          

'Moon Shot' memories from Jay Barbree: