Last Thursday, NASA confirmed that The Boeing Company had completed readiness reviews for a December 20, 2019 launch of its uncrewed CST-100 Starliner spacecraft to the International Space Station (ISS). This launch will be the first flight of Boeing’s Commercial Crew vehicle, and the second flight overall for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program following SpaceX’s uncrewed Dragon 2 launch in March. Pending a successful uncrewed Orbital Flight Test (OFT), Boeing plans to launch a crewed mission aboard its Starliner spacecraft early next year. Similarly, SpaceX plans to launch crew to the ISS using its Dragon 2 spacecraft in the near future, pending a successful In-Flight Abort Test in January.
As the year draws to a close, space agencies and companies have begun to turn their sights towards 2020 for crewed flight. Below is a peek at what we can look forward to in the next year.
1. Crewed launches from both NASA Commercial Crew Program providers
NASA introduced to the world on Aug. 3, 2018, the first U.S. astronauts who will fly on … [+]
NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP) has provided funding to U.S.-based private companies to develop orbital human spaceflight capabilities since the first phase of program awards (Commercial Crew Development 1, or CCDev 1) in 2010. The program was created in order to reduce U.S. reliance on Russia for human spaceflight capabilities after the retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2011. Since 2011, NASA has paid Russia approximately $86 million per seat to launch astronauts to the ISS aboard its Soyuz spacecraft.
After supporting 6 companies through the initial development and proposal phases of the program, NASA ultimately selected Boeing and SpaceX for Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) contracts in 2014. The multibillion dollar CCtCap contract provides funding for each provider to complete an uncrewed mission to the ISS, verify its vehicle’s in-flight abort capabilities, and finally complete a crewed demonstration mission during which two NASA astronauts are successfully ferried to and from the ISS aboard the company’s vehicle.
Though the program has experienced the delays common to human spaceflight programs, it had a productive year in 2019, with one uncrewed test flight complete and another on the books for this month. While the program has not publicly released specific launch dates for its crewed flights, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine has expressed confidence that the providers will launch crew in the first half of 2020.
Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner
Boeing’s first CST-100 Starliner spacecraft sits atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on pad … [+]
NurPhoto via Getty Images
Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft is scheduled to launch its OFT mission to the ISS aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on December 20. According to NASA’s press release, the spacecraft will dock to the ISS on December 21 and will remain attached for approximately a week. On December 28, the spacecraft will undock from the ISS and re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere before performing a parachute and airbag-assisted landing at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.
As Boeing has chosen to verify its vehicle’s in-flight abort capabilities via analysis rather than test, the OFT mission is intended to be the vehicle’s final test flight before its first crewed launch early next year. The vehicle’s crewed flight test (CFT) will provide ISS transportation for 3 crew: NASA astronauts Nicole Mann and Edward “Mike” Fincke, as well as Boeing Commercial Crew Director and former NASA astronaut Christopher Ferguson. Pending successful execution of the mission, Ferguson could become the first individual in history to travel to the ISS in both a government and commercial capacity.
SpaceX’s Crewed Dragon 2 Spacecraft
The SpaceX Dragon spacecraft which is designed to carry people and cargo to orbiting destinations … [+]
AFP via Getty Images
SpaceX’s Dragon 2 vehicle (sometimes referred to as “Crew Dragon”) launched to the ISS for the first time this March, when it successfully completed an uncrewed 5 day mission before splashing down safely in the Atlantic Ocean. Shortly afterwards, the company experienced a setback when the same vehicle used for this mission exploded on a test stand in Cape Canaveral during a capsule static fire. SpaceX has since completed a full investigation of the anomaly, which traced the fault back to a leaky component that has since been replaced on its other capsules. A newly assembled capsule completed a successful static fire earlier this month, and the company remains on track for a January 2020 launch of its In-Flight Abort Test ahead of its crewed Demo-2 mission early next year.
SpaceX’s Demo-2 mission will provide ISS transportation for NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken, who have undergone training with the company at their Hawthorne, California headquarters for several years. Though the company has been given the option to transport a SpaceX employee or private passenger to the ISS on this test flight in addition to the two NASA astronauts, SpaceX has not publicly announced any plans to do so.
2. Crewed launches of commercial suborbital vehicles
Suborbital human spaceflight has captivated the imagination of the American public since the 1990s, when renewed interest in space tourism from the investment community began opening the door to the development of new ventures. For the low price of “only” $100,000 to $1M USD, companies such as XCOR Aerospace, WorldView and Armadillo Aerospace promised private citizens a taste of the astronaut experience with short “hops” into space. Though the experience would only last several hours and provide only a few minutes of weightlessness, the substantial price reduction from orbital tourism opportunities (which often cost upwards of $20M USD) gave hope to those who dreamt of bringing spaceflight to the masses.
Space is hard, and unfortunately many of the early players in the commercial suborbital market faced technical and financial setbacks that led them to shut their doors. Over time, the field of competitors has been whittled down to Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic, who have emerged as the pack leaders with their New Shepard and SpaceShipTwo vehicles. While both companies have experienced repeated delays in their flight schedules, both continue to launch successful test flights on a regular basis, with company executives publicly stating this year that they expect crewed flight to occur within the next few months. If things continue as planned, 2020 could finally be their year.
Blue Origin’s New Shepard
Participants enjoy the Blue Origin Space Simulator during the Amazon Re:MARS conference on robotics … [+]
AFP via Getty Images
Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital rocket and capsule have been under development since at least 2006, when the program’s first subscale demonstration vehicle first flew. Since April 2015, the full New Shepard system has visited space regularly, and on its second flight the rocket became the first to land vertically on Earth after visiting space.
Named after Alan Shepard, the first American man to visit space, New Shepard was intended from the start to be a crewed transportation system. However, to date, the vehicle’s flights have carried only cargo beyond the Karman line. As of December 2019, Blue Origin has completed 12 test flights of the vehicle, 9 of which have carried commercial payloads. Recent tests have also carried a dummy named Mannequin Skywalker, which is outfitted with sensors to measure how future commercial passengers could be affected by the flight.
Blue Origin CEO Bob Smith has talked about the first crewed flight of New Shepard happening as early as 2018, but this date has repeatedly been pushed back. Smith has attributed these delays to the company’s desire to be “cautious and thorough,” so as not to jeopardize passenger safety.
As of December 2019, the company has not publicly announced a date for the first crewed flight of the capsule, but founder Jeff Bezos has hinted that he expects it to occur in the near future. The first passengers on New Shepard are likely to be Blue Origin employees, and the company has stated that it will not begin taking deposits for commercial passenger flights until these initial crewed flights have occurred.
Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo
MOJAVE, CA – FEBRUARY 19, 2016 – Sir Richard Branson, center, poses with the employees for photos … [+]
Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
Virgin Galactic’s human spaceflight capabilities have technically been in development since 1996, when the Ansari XPRIZE was created to award $10M USD to a team who could launch a reusable manned spacecraft into space twice in two weeks. Mojave Aerospace Ventures (MAV), a joint venture between Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and Burt Rutan’s Scaled Composites, ultimately won the prize with its SpaceShipOne reusable spaceplane design and White Knight launcher. Following the award, MAV signed a contract with Virgin Galactic to develop a suborbital spacecraft based on the XPRIZE-winning technology for space tourism. This deal resulted in the formation of The Spaceship Company, a joint venture between Virgin Galactic and Scaled Composites, to manufacture the spacecraft.
Since 2004, the team has been hard at work developing Virgin Galactic’s spaceplane and launcher, dubbed SpaceShipTwo and White Knight 2. A mockup of the design was revealed to the press in January 2008, with a company statement that the vehicle itself was around 60% complete at the time.
UNSPECIFIED – JANUARY 24: Virgin Galactic Flight Simulator in January 24th, 2008 – Test pilot Brian … [+]
Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
The vehicle’s development has not been without hiccups. In July 2007, an explosion occurred during a SpaceShipTwo oxidizer test at Mojave Air and Space Port, killing three employees and injuring three others with flying shrapnel. The company suffered an additional setback in October 2014 when a SpaceShipTwo vehicle broke up during a crewed test flight and crashed in the Mojave desert. The vehicle’s co-pilot was killed and the pilot was seriously injured. A subsequent inquiry by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) concluded that the crash was caused by the co-pilot’s premature deployment of the spacecraft air brake device for atmospheric re-entry. The board also cited inadequate design safeguards against human error, poor pilot training and lack of Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) oversight as contributors to the accident.
Since conclusion of the NTSB investigation in 2015, the SpaceShipTwo team has conducted 13 successful crewed test flights using its upgraded VSS Unity spaceship. These tests are in addition to the 54 successful test flights that occurred using the VSS Enterprise ship prior to its 2014 crash. Since the crash, Virgin Galactic has also taken over construction of the spacecraft from Scaled Composites, and has redesigned critical components in house to ensure passenger safety.
To date, more than 600 individuals have put down deposits for crewed tourist flights onboard SpaceShipTwo. The total price tag for a flight is $250,000 USD, and customers are asked to front half the ticket price to reserve their spot in advance. A specific launch date for the vehicle’s first commercial passenger flight has not been announced, but founder Sir Richard Branson said earlier this year that he hoped it would occur “in months not years.” Earlier this year, the company commenced its “Astronaut Readiness Program,” a preparatory course for customers that have reserved seats onboard one of the company’s first passenger flights.
3. Steady launch cadence for Russia’s Soyuz
KYZYLORDA REGION, KAZAKHSTAN – JUNE 6, 2018: A Soyuz-FG rocket booster carrying the Soyuz MS-09 … [+]
As NASA’s Commercial Crew providers continue to work towards operational crewed missions, Russia’s Soyuz vehicle will continue to be the sole low-Earth orbit transportation option for all ISS partners, who must purchase each seat from ROSCOSMOS. Launching from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, the Soyuz program has been transporting astronauts and cosmonauts into orbit since 1968. With a fatality rate of 1 in 63 people sent to orbit, Soyuz is thus far the safest human spaceflight system in history. (In contrast, the Space Shuttle’s fatality rate was approximately 1 in 56.)
As of December 2019, Soyuz Expeditions 62 and 63 are on the books for April and May 2020 launches, respectively. Each mission will ferry a crew of 3 astronauts between the Earth and ISS. While NASA hopes to reduce its dependence on the Russians for ISS transportation in the near future, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine stated in October 2019 that the agency was looking into purchasing an additional Soyuz seat for fall 2020 or spring 2021 to protect for additional Commercial Crew delays. Although both Commercial Crew partners are expected to launch crew in early 2020, Bridenstine noted that when it comes to human spaceflight development, “usually things don’t go according to plan.”
4. China’s Shenzhou 12 mission
BEIJING, Oct. 19, 2016 — Photo taken on Oct. 19, 2016 shows the screen at the Beijing Aerospace … [+]
2016 Xinhua News Agency
As of 2019, China is the only nation with human spaceflight capabilities that is not a member of the ISS program. The Chinese manned spaceflight initiative, called the Shenzhou program, successfully sent its first crew member into orbit in October 2003. Since then, the country has successfully completed 5 other crewed missions using its Shenzhou spacecraft and Long March rocket.
The last of these 5 missions – Shenzhou 11 – was launched in October 2016. After a 4 year hiatus, China plans to send its next crew up in 2020. As China does not participate in the ISS, the country plans to construct its own Tiangong Space Station, which will be constructed, owned, and operated solely by the Chinese government. Tiangong is expected to have an orbital lifetime of at least 10 years and to be able to accommodate 3 to 6 astronauts at a time, making it a project of similar scale to the ISS. The Chinese government has stated that it aims to complete construction of the station by 2022.
Looking beyond 2020, the rest of the decade appears rife with opportunity for both the commercial space industry and for government programs with deeper space ambitions. NASA’s Artemis program aims to send “the first woman and next man” to the Moon by 2024. The program has yet to announce a launch date for its uncrewed Artemis 1 test flight, but earlier this month, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine stated that he believed it would be sometime in 2021 based on the current Space Launch System (SLS) development schedule.
A model of the SLS rocket on display during the 35th Space Symposium at The Broadmoor in Colorado … [+]
AFP via Getty Images
SpaceX, in turn, looks to continue pushing the boundaries by exploring destinations beyond the ISS. The company’s #dearMoon project, which is scheduled for launch no earlier than 2023, aims to send Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa to orbit the Moon in a SpaceX Starship vehicle along with a crew of several artists. One of the project’s major goals is to inspire the creation of new art to promote peace across the world. Initial tests have commenced in Boca Chica, Texas, using subscale models of SpaceX’s Starship spacecraft.
The successful certification and operation of any of the aforementioned vehicles will be a huge milestone, both for the space industry and for humanity as a whole. If the 2010s were the decade of SpaceX, perhaps the 2020s will be the decade where space tourism finally becomes a reality. With a little luck, it could even be the decade where humans once again venture beyond low-Earth orbit.