As NASA's space-shuttle program nears its official end in 2010, space exploration has become an increasingly global competition.
The Europeans, Russians, Chinese and others are competing for bragging rights to develop the next generation of manned spacecraft.
NASA’s Constellation program, designed both to replace the space shuttle and get America back to the moon and on to Mars, has gotten a lot of publicity — and a lot of flak — as it threatens to go over budget and behind schedule.
Meanwhile, the Europeans and Russians have teamed up to create their own platform, the Chinese are continually upgrading their vehicles and the Japanese and Indians are mulling their own manned space flights.
Here's an overview of the different projects and where each stands.
NASA's Project Constellation
Project Constellation stands at the forefront of future U.S. space travel.
Aiming for a lunar landing by 2020, NASA hopes that the program will establish a long-term outpost on the moon’s surface and solidify America’s position in Earth orbit, ultimately leading to manned missions to Mars and beyond.
The Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV), named for the constellation of stars, is the centerpiece of the Constellation fleet.
At 16.5 feet in diameter, the craft's interior volume is more than 2.5 times as much as that of the classic Apollo capsule it's based on.
With the capability to transport and support four astronauts for up to six months, NASA believes that the Orion will be critical in establishing man’s ongoing presence on the moon.
"This is a wonderful opportunity for NASA to learn from the things we've done in the past, take the best of those activities, and blend them together using the latest methods of manufacturing and management to make a system that will enable us to go out and explore beyond low-Earth orbit," Houston Orion project manager Skip Hatfield said on NASA's Web site.
On July 18, NASA successfully completed a full-scale exhibition to test and develop the Orion’s jettison motor.
Firing the Orion off the launch pad are the Project Ares launch vehicles, named after the Greek name for the god Mars.
Ares I, designed with a five-segment solid rocket booster and J-2X engine, is a crew launch vehicle that will lift more than 55,000 pounds to low earth orbit.
The tallest of the fleet, Ares IV is capable of staying in low earth orbit for up three months and utilizes two five-segment solid propellant boosters for launch power.
Finally, cargo launch vehicle Ares V will lift an astounding 286,000 pounds to low earth orbit using two five-segment solid propellant boosters and RS-68 engines.
A lunar mission's crew capsule would be lifted into orbit on an Ares I, while its Earth escape vehicle and Altair lunar lander would travel aboard an Ares V; the two components would be united in orbit for the trip to the moon.
The Altair lander allows for up to 4 astronauts to travel the moon's surface with supplies and equipment to construct an outpost.
Europe and Russia Join Forces
In 2004, President Bush announced the Vision for Space Exploration, a new space policy that declared the development of the Orion capsule to be a solely American effort.
That didn't sit well with the European Space Agency, which had been cooperating with the NASA for years on various projects.
"I have been told by [NASA Administrator] Mike Griffin and [White House Office of Science and Technology Policy Director] John Marburger that the CEV is not for international cooperation," said ESA General-Director Jean-Jacques Dordain at a conference in Paris.
"If Europe is not involved in the next-generation transportation systems, we will stay forever a second-class partner," Dordain said.
So the Europeans turned instead to Roskosmos, the Russian Federal Space Agency.
For a time it seemed the ESA might help Roskosmos develop the Kliper, a stubby lifting-body manned craft that was the leading candidate to succeed Russia's ancient Soyuz design. But it was never pursued.
In June 2006, ESA and Roskosmos began a two-year collaborative study to see if they could work together on the Advanced Crew Transportation System (ACTS), an existing ESA project.
Despite further reports of unsuccessful meetings between top officials from both agencies, on July 18, 2006, Anatoly Perminov, head of Roskosmos, announced that Russian funding for the Kliper spacecraft had been cancelled.
Within days, ESA and Roskosmos announced that they had come to an agreement to work together on the ACTS vehicle project.
Reports had already come in May that a design had been chosen for the shared ACTS vehicle.
The capsule abandons the trademark spherical Russian design in favor of a more Apollo-like conical structure and is expected to make its first manned launch from Russia’s new Vostochny spaceport in 2018.
Continued Kliper Development
Despite the loss of government funding, Russian aerospace company RKK Energia has decided to continue developing the Kliper even as it also works on ACTS.
The Kliper has a launch mass of 13 tons, is equipped for self-contained missions of up to 15 days and can spend up to 360 days in orbit.
"Economically speaking, the goal set in designing the reusable six-seater Kliper is a lower per-member cost of flight. The cost of putting crewmen in orbit is much less than in the present Soyuz ships and many times less than American shuttle service," RKK Energia head Nikolai Sevastyanov told the Russia's Novosti news agency in June 2005.
Vladameer Daneev, lead designer of the project, hopes to carry out plans for a manned mission in 2012.
More from Europe
Like the Russians, Europe has continued its own private-sector research independent of the ACTS collaboration.
On May 13, the BBC reported that the European Aeronautics Defense and Space Company (EADS) had announced plans for construction of a manned spacecraft.
The proposal intends to modify the European robotic space freighter known as the Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) into a three-man spacecraft capable of ferrying astronauts into low-Earth orbit, a task that the Europeans currently rely on the U.S. and Russia for.
In addition, EADS plans further advances to the existing Ariane 5 rocket system, which was originally designed as a launch vehicle for the cancelled Hermes space shuttle.
Asia Catches Up
Not to be overlooked, China, India and Japan are advancing their own space-exploration programs.
China's Shenzhou spacecraft performed its first manned flight in the fall of 2003, making it only the third nation to successfully carry out an independent manned space mission.
SpaceDaily.com reported in November 2006 that Beijing plans for the Shenzhou 7 mission to feature a one-man space walk.
Further reports in 2007 from Space.com indicated that the launch will take place in October of 2008, following the Beijing Olympics.
Meanwhile, the Indian Space Research Organization project Chandrayaan 1, meaning "moon vehicle" in Hindi, is the first Indian planetary science and exploration mission.
The spacecraft, which includes European instruments, will be used by engineers for scientific investigation of the moon.
Rounding out the state of space exploration is the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) H-II Transfer Vehicle, or HTV.
Capable of carrying 6 tons of cargo, the launch vehicle is primarily used for the transportation of food, water and project materials.
On July 20, the Yomiuri newspaper in Tokyo reported talks between JAXA and the U.S. regarding U.S. purchase of the HTV in order to fulfill its commitments to the International Space Station.
The Japanese have excelled in robotic space probes, sending craft to orbit the moon, observe the Sun and retrieve material from comets, but, like the Europeans, have never independently sent a man into space.
JAXA said in 2006 that it plans to put men on the moon in 2020 and establish a lunar base by 2030, but further plans have not materialized.
Mars and Beyond?
With the Chinese and Japanese setting sights on the moon, the U.S. has naturally aimed beyond.
"We have a long-term plan to put a man on Mars by 2037," NASA Administrator Michael Griffin told a space conference in India last September.
That's something no other country can realistically aspire to just yet. But with six different space agencies planning manned missions of one form or another, it's truly a never-ending race for space.