Our Next Space Capsule
The Space Shuttles are scheduled to retire in two more years when the ISS is complete. Its replacement, the Orion, which could be reasonably described as an upgraded Apollo Space Capsule with a four man capacity, is not scheduled to go on line until 2014 at best, which means that for around 4 years we will be depending on Russian rockets to get our people to the ISS.
Of course if we really wanted to we could probably extend the active life of the shuttles for a year or two, but I don't know about four more years as they are getting kind of old. Unless another way is found we may have to depend on the Russians . . .
Unless we have a wildcard in the deck.
Sometimes private industry is a step or two ahead of the government. Behold! The oddly named but still viable DRAGON. Courtesy of Space Exploration Technologies.
It is capable of either a cargo, personnel, or mixed configuration and was designed to support private commercial platforms that would become economically and technologically viable in the next decade. In spite of a minor setback a couple of weeks ago with its launch vehicle (the Falcon), the Dragon is further along in its development than the Orion and NASA needs to take a good look at it. It could conceivably be operational a full two years before the Orion. I don't know if the Dragon is capable of leaving Earth orbit and going to the moon, but it is designed to reach and dock with, the ISS.
Recent news involving the Dragon can be read here.
I would love it if free enterprise saves our nation's Space Program.
Note that Bigelow Aerospace is also a major player in the private development of space and are working towards building private space stations very soon.
Finally, I think we would benefit from two competitive systems rather than one.
UPDATE: My younger brother who works at the cape sent me a link of a letter that John McCain and others sent to President Bush regarding this very problem. (pdf file)