The Orion crew vehicle is set to fly in the fall. Is this the start of an American resurgence in space?
It’s hard to know when to take NASA seriously anymore. In the past, if the big brains at the space agency said we were going to the moon, well, pack your bags, because we’re shipping out. These days? Not so much. As TIME has noted, one of the best ways to tell if any planned mission described in any NASA press release has a chance of actually flying is to use the Count the Conditionals Rule. The greater the number of references to what a spacecraft could achieve or when it should be flying, the less chance it’s going anywhere at all.
For years now, the manned space program has been drowning in conditionals. We were building spacecraft that could take humans to Mars—then we weren’t; we were committing ourselves to a new program that would have us back on the moon by 2015—and then we broke the commitment. But slowly, the manned program appears to be getting back on track. Real hardware is being built again, real firing tests are being conducted, and a first test launch of a new deep-space vehicle is scheduled for September. If (and that’s a planet-sized if), funding stays in place, White House policy doesn’t change and general fecklessness doesn’t prevail, the U.S. could at last be finding its way back to its once-dominant role in space.
NASA is making its current push with two new machines: a crew vehicle dubbed Orion and a rocket that is better known better by its acronym—SLS—than by it’s decidedly prosaic name, which is Space Launch System. But anything the machines lack in marketing sizzle they make up in engineering ambition. (Continued below gallery)