NASA's remaining shuttle is nearly 30 years old and scheduled to be retired in 2010. NASA's new spaceship, Orion, won't be ready for launch until 2015, according to the current budget and schedule. NASA is reported to be examining alternatives for maintaining space transport, either moving up the completion date for Orion—an expensive strategy—or else extending the current shuttle program (also expensive, and with every trip the aging shuttle runs a higher risk of accident or disaster.)
NASA's quandary is nothing new. In fact, it brings up the same problem we've been looking at pretty much since our first ventures into space: what's the best way to get there? Putting stuff on a big rocket, fueled with super-test fossil-fuels, and blasting it into space by sheer force has worked pretty well, so far. Except it's expensive, and rockets tend to blow up, since . . . well . . . they're explosive by design.
NASA announced the successful test launch of a prototype super-pressure high-altitude balloon this week. The balloon reached and maintained an altitude of over 100,000 feet, and maintained pressure for course of an eleven-day test. They launched the balloon from the National Science Foundation's Antarctic-based McMurdo Station
The long-range hope is that payloads will eventually be transported to the edge of space by high-tech balloons. This isn't nearly as far-fetched as it may sound to those of us who are more accustomed to thinking about rocket-ships and space-shuttles, than to thinking about helium balloons. There are experimental programs underway already, designing balloons to study the surfaces of Venus, Mars, and the moon. Balloons in space have long been an area of intense scientific interest, in part because balloons are extremely economical both to transport and to operate in comparison to other types of vessels.
Earth has been using balloons in space since the 1984 international VEGA project, when Russia released instrument-bearing balloons from two spacecraft to pass through the atmosphere of Venus, on their way to study Halley's comet.
Even the idea of manned balloons in space isn't inconceivable. In fact, in 1961, Malcolm Ross and Vic Prather rode a balloon to over 11,000 feet in altitude, launching from an aircraft carrier and splashing down in the Gulf of Mexico. Prather drowned before Navy divers could rescue him. In 2001, a couple of British engineer-adventurers announced a project to reach the edge of the earth's atmosphere in an open balloon gondola, wearing spacesuits. The balloon developed a leak shortly before their scheduled launch, however, and the flight was called off.
I really don't expect to see balloon launches from Cape Canaveral transporting fresh crew to the space station anytime soon, if ever. That's just not logistically practical. But it's seeming more and more likely that a balloon dropped into the atmosphere of Venus or Mars could circumnavigate the globe, take samples, and transmit data home.