But you say that we don’t have any more Shuttles flying? Not true! The U.S. Air Force has been flying the X-37B since April 2010. The second X-37B was completed and launched in March 2011 and is currently in orbit right now. It’s considered a second-generation shuttle with improved thermal protection systems, advanced avionics and airframe, internal payload bay with robotic arm, a 270 day operational period in orbit, and autonomous guidance system. (Shown here on left inside it's nosecone fairing pre-launch for an Atlas V rocket)
While all these orbiters are fully automatic and do not yet support human spaceflight, SpaceX’s Dragon capsule is set for testing carrying twice as many passengers at 1/3rd the cost per passenger (compared to the Russian Soyuz) and will be ready in 2014. That’s approximately 29 months. Which is the same time frame to get humans into orbit as after the Columbia disaster. There’s also Virgin Galactic and XCOR (Both shown above) planning on launching commercial passengers in 2013 or 2014. Don’t forget about Sierra Nevada Corp., Blue Origin, Excalibur Almaz and Boeing which are all developing their own crew carrying spacecraft to be operational by 2015.
Here’s one thing that you aren’t hearing other countries talking about: Space Stations. We all know about the I.S.S., but what about after that? Well, American based Bigelow Aerospace is planning to start launching it’s Commercial Space Station Alpha in 2014 followed by Bravo in 2018. Alpha will have a pressurized volume of 1500 meters cubed compared to the I.S.S. volume of 1000 meters cubed and utilizes inflatable habitats that have already been tested in orbit. This technology uses a fabric that is twice the strength of Kevlar and is based on the cancelled I.S.S. Transhab project.
Are we seeing America falling behind in the space launch and development sector? No, just a re-tooling for a far brighter future that affords better access to space for less cost and is available to everyone.