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Why the US Can’t Get Astronauts Into Space

by Brian Dunning, Apr 19 2012

One thing that space enthusiasts keep hearing is frustration over why the Russians are the only ones able to launch people into space, forcing American and European astronauts to hitch rides.

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Attached is a chart I threw together showing the five major spacefaring powers (the US, Russia, ESA, Japan, and China) and their current heavy-lift capabilities, compared to the upcoming commercially developed Falcon Heavy from SpaceX. As you can see at a glance, the SpaceX craft has capabilities that far exceed those of anyone else.

But note that the Falcon Heavy is still in development, while the others are all real and actually flying; and further, note that most of these spacefaring powers have larger craft in development. Yet even those don’t approach the Falcon Heavy’s capabilities (except for the United States’ Space Launch System, which has versions proposed to be even larger than the Falcon Heavy but these are not remotely to the development stage and may never be).

The system that takes people up to the International Space Station is very small. Currently they use a Soyuz-FG rocket, with a Low Earth Orbit payload of only 7100 kilograms — that’s a bit more than half that of the smallest rocket shown on this chart. This raises a really obvious question: Since we have all these rockets flying with more than enough capability, why the heck do we have to hitch a ride on Soyuz???

Two basic reasons: cost, and human rating. Rockets have to be human rated to be considered safe enough to fly people. Nobody really cares if we blow up a load of ham sandwiches and toilet paper for the space station, but we care a lot if we blow up people. (The Soyuz-FG has a 100% success rate so far; Russia’s older Soyuz-U rocket, used for cargo runs, has failed about 3% of the 745 times it’s been launched.)

Russia’s big Proton M shown on the chart is not human rated either; it’s used mainly for gigantic spy satellites (as far as we know). Spy satellites are, in general, much larger physically than most people know; some are the size of a bus. They are the main reason why these non-human rated heavy lift rockets exist.

Human rating is one of those issues where there is perhaps more bureaucracy than there needs to be. There are two schools of thought: Make things as safe as possible, or make things as safe as we can reasonably afford to. Page through this document: Human Rated Delta IV Heavy Study: Constellation Architecture Impacts to get an idea. Realistically, the Delta IV heavy is not likely to ever be human rated (in my reasonably-informed estimation).

To one degree or another, these other operational heavy lift systems listed on the chart are not likely to be human rated any time soon either. The exception is that big one at the top: SpaceX designed the Falcon Heavy to be human rated from the very start. Founder Elon Musk has little interest in doing things halfway or in getting bogged down in bureaucracy. The Falcon Heavy has twice the capacity of a Delta IV Heavy, yet costs only a third as much to build and launch. And it qualifies to be human rated.

The Falcon Heavy’s smaller sibling, the Falcon 9, already has two resupply launches scheduled for the International Space Station in 2012, and two more in 2013. The Falcon heavy is scheduled for a demo flight sometime toward the end of 2012, which is slated to meet all of the qualifications for human rating.

So why can’t the US launch its own guys into space? If you want a single answer, it’s because governments’ resources are split. They need to buy big heavy-lift rockets for spy satellites on the cheap, and they need to create highly engineered human rated rockets. These are two different applications, and it’s simply too difficult to do both.

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34 Responses to “Why the US Can’t Get Astronauts Into Space”

  1. Max says:

    Two space shuttles were lost out of 135 missions. Is a 1.5% failure rate low enough?

    • tmac57 says:

      The later redesigned versions of the launch vehicles were supposedly more robust,so that statistic probably would not hold if they had continued to fly.On the other hand,the systems were aging,and other failures may have cropped up.

  2. Michael Brady says:

    The Falcon 9 is also destined to become human-rated. The SpaceX Dragon cargo capsule can become a Dragonrider crew capsule by installing up to seven seats and a life support package. And, unlike the STS, it has a crew escape system that will all the way into orbit and a heat shield that can’t be killed by a piece of styrofoam. Hate to sound like a shill for SpaceX (I don’t work for them, but wish I did!) but they seem to be getting all of it right.

  3. Michael Brady says:

    @ Max

    “Two space shuttles were lost out of 135 missions. Is a 1.5% failure rate low enough?”

    No. The new systems are all returning to the old school methods by putting the crew capsule at the top of the vehicle, providing a system that allows the crew to escape a catastrophe during launch, and a rugged heat shield that is not vulnerable to styrofoam. we sacrificed two shuttle crews to save money.

  4. Janet Camp says:

    The bigger question is why bother putting people into space? Robots can do the job of science much better and at relatively little cost. Do we want knowledge or do we just want to further the romantic notion that we must go to other planets/bodies? All we will do is contaminate places we did not evolve in. We would be an invasive species. Do we never learn?

    If we want minerals from the moon, it can be done all or mostly without humans.

    This low orbit thing we’ve been on about for years has accomplished little besides spurring the private sector toward space tourism.

    • Ken Burnside says:


      Opportunity has traveled just over 21 miles in not quite 8 years.

      Spirit traveled 5 miles before it was immobilized due to sandstorm issues.

      By way of comparison, the lunar rovers with astronauts on them covered 22.5 and 31.8 miles in a single day.

      I’m a big fan of robotic exploration because it’s much cheaper to send a robot than to send a human being. However, ANY geologist will tell you that a human on the ground with a hammer and a sampling tool can do more science in 15 minutes than a robotic rover can do in a week, and can cover more ground, more rapidly.

      There will be situations where it’s worthwhile to put a human being out there to fix a problem. If there’d been someone on Mars to fix Spirit’s wheels with a toothbrush, it would still be mobile.

      And as far as “contaminate places we did not evolve in. We would be an invasive species. Do we never learn?” goes…the species that DO “learn that lesson” get displaced by the ones that don’t. Look at the Holocene Bottleneck when the entirety of homo sapiens narrowed down to 700 individuals.

      • Max says:

        It’s not only cheaper to send a robot than to send a human being, it’s cheaper to send several robots than to send a human being. And the saved money could be invested in developing better robots.

        Neil deGrasse Tyson admits that the main reason for human space exploration is not to do better science, but to inspire kids to study science and engineering. But I doubt that this is the best PR for the money. Robots can inspire kids too.

      • Janet Camp says:

        You’ve cherry picked your examples. Overall, robots can do far more at vastly less cost without contamination. You’re being sentimental, not scientific.

    • Phea says:

      This will answer your question much better than I could.

      • Max says:

        “The majority of astronomers seem to favor robotic exploration over manned spaceflight. The most common argument is that robotic exploration is simply more efficient and cost-effective than human exploration. A recent paper by Ian Crawford challenges this view…”

        It says humans have an advantage in strength and speed over robots. I think I’ll stick with the majority of astronomers.

    • Trimegistus says:

      If you think humans are an “invasive species” contaminating the Universe by our presence . . . why are you contaminating the Earth with your own presence?

  5. Nyar says:

    Why do we still need rockets for heavy spy satellites? Can’t airborne drones do that mission more effectively and cheaper than satellites now?

    • tmac57 says:

      Probably so,but then there is the ‘violation of sovereign airspace’ thing to worry about.It is completely legal to spy with satellites as far as I know (though there may be some exceptions regarding communications).

      • Nyar says:

        Honestly, I hadn’t even thought of that. The U.S. government uses drones in many countries without regard to sovereign airspace so it just completely slipped my mind. But you know, those missions are almost certainly illegal.

      • tmac57 says:

        There is also always the risk of losing an asset that can give away technology and tactics,such as the recent loss of the drone in Iran.They always need to balance those risks against the benefits of the intelligence gains.

    • Max says:

      Satellites are safer, don’t need to land or refuel, can observe large areas, and have precise telemetry. Drones have other advantages like persistence and flying under clouds.

  6. Canman says:

    Excellent post! It made me think of the movie, “Space Cowboys”.

  7. MadScientist says:

    So why isn’t Soyuz on the chart? I’d also like some units on that vertical axis; for all I know, that’s 20,000 cigarettes payload into orbit.

  8. MadScientist says:

    Forget the spy satellites – have you seen a geostationary communications satellite? They’re monstrous things and they need to get to a 38,000km orbit (as opposed to the ~400km altitude you need to supply the ISS or the 100-400 typical of a spy satellite).

  9. says:

    the bigger question is why is your graph made out of hotdogs?

    • I was wondering when someone was going to comment on that. At first I tried to get them to look like rockets, but eventually I gave up in the face of Excel’s ultra-lame minimalist controls, and put a color on each of them.

  10. gdave says:

    There’s something I don’t understand about SpaceX and the Falcon Heavy, or more accurately, about a lot of the commentary I’ve seen on it:

    “…the SpaceX craft has capabilities that far exceed those of anyone else.”

    “The Falcon Heavy has twice the capacity of a Delta IV Heavy, yet costs only a third as much to build and launch. And it qualifies to be human rated.”

    Note the present tense. Yet,

    “But note that the Falcon Heavy is still in development, while the others are all real and actually flying;” and “The Falcon heavy is scheduled for a demo flight sometime toward the end of 2012, which is slated to meet all of the qualifications for human rating.”

    I’ve seen other blog posts by space enthusiasts about this rocket, and they all seem to assume that the Falcon Heavy will fulfill all of its design goals, on time, and on budget. Indeed, this post puts its discussion of the Falcon Heavy’s capabilities in the present tense, as if it were an already proven system. But (AFAIK) the first one hasn’t even been completed yet, much less successfully launched. Isn’t it possible it won’t live up to the hype, or even fail completely? What am I missing?

    • Ben H. says:

      You have summarized exactly what I was going to point out. My favorite sentence is “The Falcon Heavy has twice the capacity of a Delta IV Heavy, yet costs only a third as much to build and launch.”

      What he meant to say was that SpaceX PROJECTS it will be twice the capacity at a third the cost. All of the other rockets out there that cost a lot more started out with optimistic development programs too. The best laid plans…

      The aerospace industry is notorious for being overbudget and behind schedule on almost EVERY project. I hope as much as everyone that SpaceX will achieve their goal of breaking that trend, but there’s no great reason to have huge confidence in them until they prove they can do it.

      - Ben H.
      Houston, Texas

  11. MadScientist says:

    They’re just over-enthusiastic. The Falcon-9 test flights have all gone very well so far which was a surprise for me given the 100% failure rate of the Falcon-1, but it’s certainly not an impossible feat. Making things bigger of course is far more than a matter of strapping more engines together (we don’t want to see another disaster like the Russian N1).

  12. d brown says:

    People wondering how NASA really works should read THE HUBBLE WARS and a book by Freeman Dyson. I can’t find it right now, but he took time off from dying to be on the government space shuttle investigation. He stayed away from the PR people and found out what happened and how NSASA was hiding the truth. Anybody remember the moon rockets and how hard NSASA worked to wreck them. They do not even want to save one for display. Supper fast ram jet drones were made and used over the S.U. They did not work. But that was in the 1950′s. There was the SR-70. But the Air Force killed them to get them taken off the AF budget.

    • tmac57 says:

      ‘The Hubble Wars’ was written by Eric Chaisson,and I think that you are thinking of Richard Feynman,not Freeman Dyson (still alive by the way) who joined the space shuttle investigation.


      SR-71 “Blackbird”

      • MadScientist says:

        Shhh… we have a live conspiracist. It’s really the NSA-SA, not NASA. My reply half a day ago must have vanished into the ether – no doubt the NSA-SA at work.

      • tmac57 says:

        Oh…I mistook it for a stutter.

  13. Robin says:

    I was an engineering (Ops Centre) staff member with the European Space Agency (ESA) from 1968 to 1993. During that time ESA also worked on a large number of cooperative efforts involving other agencies.

    Now any space-related project takes years from initial inception thru launch, comissioning, lifetime and eventual reentry. To make it clear, at the time you start you have to be prepared to see the project through for twenty years – or more when you commit funds to anaylsing scientific data (for example) after a mission ends.

    The European Space Agency is funded by a large number of Member States, all of which work on different economic and political cycles, and none of which wants – to put it frankly – the ‘shame’ of pulling out of a project – for any reason.

    In contrast, the USA has a cycle tied to electing a new President every four years. And the first thing a new President does is look for somewhere to save money. And NASA – poor heavy overweight overstaffed NASA – is a prime target for cutbacks. Hence, no way can any government-run space project planned four or more years ahead survive in the United States of America today.

    And that, my friends, is why we will see Chinese on the Moon before the USA has even woken up to the idea. Yes, it’s a shame and a disgrace and every recent President shares the blame, no matter whether Republican or Democrat.

    P.S. This year the USA dropped out of the next Mars Explorer mission. Can’t afford it, they say. So ESA had no way of getting its spacecraft there (they are already under construction) – but the Russians picked up the ball and they will now ferry ESA to Mars.

    • Thomas says:

      Which just goes to show that the EU thinks of their science programs as jobs programs just like the U.S. does. The Russians have a terrible record doing Mars missions.

  14. David Bird says:

    Sorry but this is COMPLETELY off-topic…

    Where and when can the general viewing public watch the TV show “The Skeptologists”??? Has it been cancelled? (I sincerely hope not because just about all the so-called science channels are now just pandering to bull-sh*t!).