Thursday, February 04, 2010

Nerd word of the week: Human-rated

Project Constellation insigniaImage via Wikipedia
Human-rated (adj.) - Term for a spacecraft that is capable of safely transporting human passengers. The term man-rated is often used interchangeably with human-rated. Human-rated craft are almost invariably more complex, more expensive, and thus rarer than mere cargo-rated craft.

I bring it up because: President Obama just pulled the plug on the the next NASA human-rated spacecraft, Project Constellation, in his recently proposed federal budget -- even as we edge closer to the retirement of the space shuttle program in September of this year with STS-133. (Whether this axing survives Congress remains to be seen, as the Bush-era Constellation program promised research dollars to several Congressional districts.) As it stands now, NASA is going to be out of the manned spaceflight business after this year, and may stay that way for years, even decades, and perhaps forever.

Scientists are torn over the Constellation shutdown: Upset that the promise of a manned presence on the moon, Mars, and even the asteroids has been nixed; relieved that an over-budget, backwards-looking retread of the Apollo program has been shut down in favor of more promising and practical telescope and robot-probe missions. Moreover, Obama is explicitly handing the human-rated baton over to private spaceflight, with the likes of SpaceX poised to pick up millions or even billions of dollars in NASA contracts if they find a commercial method of getting astronauts and cargo to and from the International Space Station. It could be a bold new era of affordable spaceflight, or just another decade or three of humanity trapped in the claustrophobic confines of Low Earth Orbit. Only time, and human-rated innovation, will tell.