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Fifty Years Ago: 'God Speed, John Glenn'

While initially it continued to use mechanical gauges in the cockpit, it had multiple redundant digital computers, though initially using old-style magnetic-core memory from the sixties, which was viewed to be radiation resistant and would work even with a power loss. Later, glass display screens were put in the cockpit in upgrades. In the place of limited-life batteries, it had fuel cells, whose byproduct was potable water.

In terms of life support, the Shuttle had thermal control and fans in the cabin, and didn’t need to do a “rotisserie” maneuver (a continuous slow roll in the sunlight) to keep the heat on the spacecraft even, as Apollo did on the way to and from the moon. It had a toilet (though it was notoriously unreliable) and a shower. Its heat shield was reusable (though high maintenance) and unlike Apollo and earlier vehicles, which sustained a brutal six to seven gravities of acceleration on entry, it never exceeded three gravities on either ascent or descent. Instead of splashing down in the ocean and bobbing around, it landed on a runway.

But with the retirement of the Shuttle last summer, what will the future hold for Americans in orbit?

There are at least four spacecraft under development to get humans to orbit: NASA’s Orion, SpaceX’s Dragon, Boeing’s CST-100 -- all capsules, like those of the sixties -- and Sierra Nevada’s Dreamchaser space plane. All will be larger than Apollo was, at least in terms of how many passengers they can carry, with plans for up to seven, though with much less volume than the Shuttle cabin. But then, none of them, other than Orion (and Dragon), are planned for extended duration, and in that mission mode they will carry fewer people. Unlike the Shuttle, the primary purpose of the private vehicles is to quickly get people to existing orbital facilities, whether the International Space Station or new ones being built by, among others, Bigelow Aerospace. So comfort isn’t as much of an issue. Dragon and Orion are planned for longer-duration missions, and will have solar panels for power. Orion will have toilet and shower facilities, and in some concepts even a galley. All will have state-of-the-art computers and displays, and life-support systems.

But in some ways, it will be a step backwards to the sixties. Orion is still planned to land in the water, like Apollo, and this is the initial mode for Dragon recovery as well, though the company plans to eventually be able to land it vertically on rockets. But Boeing’s system will land on the ground, using airbags, and the Dreamchaser will come in on a runway, like the Shuttle did. Gravity levels on descent will exceed the three gees of the Shuttle.

But the most important difference between human spaceflight then, and now, is that back then sending a man into space, however crudely, was viewed as something that only the government of a superpower could do. Unfortunately, as we’ve seen with the recent push back from some in the space community against the new commercial providers, that mindset often remains firmly in place. But to anyone closely following the industry, it is clearly no longer true. Half a century after the first harrowing orbital flight of a brave Marine test pilot, we are on the verge of a new era of competition with multiple private providers, in which flights into space are truly routine, relatively safe, and affordable to large numbers of people, with comfortable destinations. Space is finally becoming a place, rather than a program, thanks in part to pioneers like John Glenn.