Firing the Space Shuttle: Top 9 replacements (gallery)

The Space Shuttle might be history but there's a line forming to take its place and enter the new space race.
By Jason Perlow, Senior Contributing Writer
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The venerable Soyuz and Progress spacecraft, combined with the Soyuz launch system has been in use by the Russian Federation and the Soviet Union for more than 40 years. It's a tested and reliable design and is now what NASA has resorted to using for manned spaceflight and orbital resupply since the Space Shuttle was finally put out to pasture after its final flight last July. The Soyuz can carry up to three astronauts into orbit.
Until other designs shown in this gallery can be thoroughly tested for manned spaceflight, there won't be an American solution to getting our own astronauts into space.
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The SpaceX system, which consists of the re-useable Dragon capsule and the Falcon 9 launch system is the most promising of all commercial designs. The Falcon 9 rocket, which has undergone 2 successful independent launch tests, has been cleared by NASA for a launch and docking mission to the International Space Station on April 30, 2012.
The Dragon is currently a unmanned capsule designed for re-supply missions to the ISS, but two derivatives which can carry three or seven (The "Super Draco") astronauts are currently under development.
The Falcon 9 rocket is a two-stage system which has been designed to be re-useable. As of the current date, SpaceX has not been able to recover the stages of the booster. Future versions of the Dragon capsule and the Falcon 9 stages, codenamed "Grashopper" are supposed to be able to launch, return from orbit and land vertically under their own power, sans parachute, a la "Buck Rogers", however SpaceX has not yet started testing of these radical design improvements in either the Dragon or the Falcon.
Vital Specs: Falcon 9 Rocket

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Boeing's CST-100 (Crew Space Transportation) is a large capsule capable of supporting up to 7-man crews and is designed to remain in orbit for up to 7 months at a time, and can be re-useable for up to 10 missions.

The capsule is currently under preliminary development and has had mock-ups undergo parachute drop testing in the Nevada desert in April of 2012.
NASA has leased space at the Orbiter Processing Facility in Kennedy Space Center for further manufacturing and tests of the CST-100.
The CST-100 was designed to be compatible with several launch systems, including Atlas V, Delta 4, and SpaceX's Falcon 9.
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MPCV (Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle) is an outgrowth of the CEV (Crew Exploration Vehicle) of President George W. Bush's Vision for Space Exploration initiative that was announced in January of 2004. Various design changes have resulted in a capsule that can carry up to four astronauts, and is similar in outward appearance to the Apollo capsule from the 1960s.

The Orion was originally designed to sit atop the Ares V booster system, which has since been cancelled by the Obama administration.  Lockheed plans to do an initial unmanned flight test of the Orion using a Delta IV Heavy booster in 2014.
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SpaceDev's Dream Chaser is an attempt to return to the X-34 lifting body designs originally proposed for the Air Force. Like the Space Shuttle, the Dream Chaser is a re-useable spacecraft which can accomodate a crew of seven astronauts and cargo for resupply of the ISS. It is designed to launch atop a Atlas V booster rocket and on its return trip earth, perform a glide (unpowered) landing on a conventional runway exactly like the Space Shuttle.

NASA has awarded $80M to the continued development of Dream Chaser. Sierra Nevada has had successful test firings of the Dream Chaser's hybrid rocket motor and has completed tooling for building the composite structure of the vehicle, as well as assembly of the primary structure of its initial test flight airframe.
No test flights have been planned as of yet.
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Founded in the Year 2000 and privately funded by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, the company has established a facility in Culbertson County, Texas, for the development of their spacecraft known as "New Shepard". 

New Shepard is unique from the other spacecraft designs in this gallery in that it is designed to be a SSTO (Single Stage to Orbit) re-useable spacecraft. More so than the SpaceX Falcon 9 "Grasshopper" that is being proposed, it's totally "Buck Rogers" in its design in that it takes off vertically and also lands under its own power vertically, all in one piece.
A New Shepard vehicle, if produced, could send up to 3 astronauts into orbit or could also be used for re-supply of the ISS.
Blue Origin has undergone several tests using sub-scale test vehicles. The company lost one of the prototype sub-scale vehicles on August 24, 2011 when the ground crew lost control and contact.
NASA has given approximately $22M to Blue Origin for additional funding and development of the New Shepard.
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Under development by the US military and NASA since the 1960s, the Delta series of rockets have an impeccable history for delivering unmanned payloads into orbit. The Delta IV, which comes in five variants depending on payload requirements, will almost certainly continue to be used for launching satellites and unmanned probes into space for the foreseeable future.

The Delta IV Heavy would likely be the preferred platform for launching the Orion MPCV spacecraft, at least initially.
Vital specs: Delta IV
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United Launch Alliance Atlas V Launch System

The United Launch Alliance Atlas system, formerly operated by Lockheed-Martin, like the Boeing Delta rockets, has an excellent record for sending manned and unmanned payloads into orbit and also for use in unmanned space exploration. To date, 28 out of 29 launches have been successful.
Like the Delta IV, the Atlas V comes in several variants depending on the payload requirements. Atlas V is slated to be the launch system for the Dreamchaser and the Boeing CST-100.
Vital specs: Atlas V
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The Space Launch System, or SLS, is a multi-stage rocket and booster system that uses technologies and components recycled from the Space Shuttle program, namely the multi-segment SRB (Solid Rocket Booster), the External Tank (ET) as well as the RS-25 Space Shuttle Main Engines built by United Technolgies' Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne division.

This re-use of components built and designed originally for the Shuttle is supposed to result in a launch system that will be fairly quick to design, test and send into service. 
SLS is a heavy lift system which is intended to be used in the future of space exploration to the Moon and Mars into the 2030's, not just re-supply and crew ferrying to the ISS. SLS is comparable in launch and payload capability to the Saturn V used in the Apollo program in the 1960's.
While no tests of the SLS are currently underway or scheduled for near-term, there is a tentative first flight on the books for an unmanned Orion MPCV capsule to be sent to the Moon and back in an an unmanned mission in December of 2017.
Vital Specs: NASA SLS

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