Human Spaceflight In 2020: What Lies Ahead
Last Thursday, NASA confirmed that The Boeing Company had completed readiness reviews for a December 20, 2019 launch of its uncrewed Orbital Flight Test (OFT) to the International Space Station (ISS). The launch will be the first flight of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner vehicle developed under NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, and the second flight overall for the Commercial Crew Program following SpaceX’s uncrewed Dragon 2 launch in March. Pending a successful OFT mission, 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.
For years, the industry has eagerly awaited SpaceX and Boeing’s first crewed launches. The last space vehicle to receive human-rating certification was NASA’s Space Shuttle in 1981. Since then, space agencies and private companies around the globe have poured significant financial and human capital into developing new crew vehicles, but none of these efforts has yet resulted a crewed mission.
As the year draws to a close, spacecraft manufacturers have begun looking towards 2020 for their next chance to launch humans into space. Below is a peek at what we can expect from the industry next year.
1. Crewed launches from both NASA Commercial Crew Program providers
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NASA introduced to the world on Aug. 3, 2018, the first U.S. astronauts who will fly on . [+] American-made, commercial spacecraft to and from the International Space Station – an endeavor that will return astronaut launches to U.S. soil for the first time since the space shuttle’s retirement in 2011. The agency assigned nine astronauts to crew the first test flight and mission of both Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon. The astronauts are, from left to right: Sunita Williams, Josh Cassada, Eric Boe, Nicole Mann, Christopher Ferguson, Douglas Hurley, Robert Behnken, Michael Hopkins and Victor Glover.
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.
Though the program has experienced the delays common to human spaceflight development, 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 . [+] 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on December 4, 2019 in Cape Canaveral, Florida. The Starliner crew capsule, designed to carry as many as seven astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS), is scheduled to make its first unmanned test flight to the ISS on December 19. (Photo by Paul Hennessy/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
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.
The OFT launch comes on the heels of the Starliner Pad Abort Test, which the company successfully completed at the beginning of November. Boeing previously experienced a setback when during a 2018 attempt of the test, a propellant leak occurred during engine shutdown. Based on the results of the subsequent anomaly investigation, Boeing implemented an operational control to prevent the leakage from re-occurring.
Since 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 flight test before it launches crew 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, along with Boeing Commercial Crew Director and former NASA astronaut Christopher Ferguson. Upon 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 . [+] such as space stations, is displayed at the SpaceX headquarters in Los Angeles on July 21, 2019. (Photo by Mark RALSTON / AFP) (Photo credit should read MARK RALSTON/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 SpaceX’s 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, it has not publicly announced any plans to do so.
2. Crewed launches of commercial suborbital vehicles
Suborbital human spaceflight has captured the public imagination since the 1990s, when renewed interest from investors in space tourism began spurring development of “affordable” spaceflight options. For the “low” price of $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 last only a few hours and provide less than 10 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 space exploration to the masses.
Unfortunately, launching humans into space is difficult, and many early players in the commercial suborbital market faced technical and financial setbacks that forced them to shut their doors. Over time, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic have emerged as leaders in the suborbital space race with their New Shepard and SpaceShipTwo vehicles. While both companies have experienced repeated delays in their flight schedules, both have been completing successful test flights on a regular basis. As of fall 2019, executives from both companies have publicly stated that they expect crewed flight to occur within the next few months. If things continue to go 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 . [+] and artificial intelligence at the Aria Hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada on June 5, 2019. (Photo by Mark RALSTON / AFP) (Photo credit should read MARK RALSTON/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 fully integrated New Shepard system has visited space regularly, and on its second flight the rocket became the first in history 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 . [+] by the new Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo at its roll out in the Mojave Desert, about a year and a half after Virgin’s last rocket plane broke into pieces and killed the test pilot. (Photo by Al Seib/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
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 . [+] Binnie in the Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo flight simulator, which will take passengers a year to just over 100 km altitude; Virgin Galactic’s first world is the spaceline owning an (Photo by Thierry BOCCON-GIBOD/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)
Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
As is often the case in human spaceflight, 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.” In fall 2019, the company began 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 . [+] spacecraft with the ISS Expedition 56/57 prime crew members, European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Alexander Gerst, Roscosmos cosmonaut Sergey Prokopyev, and NASA astronaut Serena M. Aunon-Chancellor, aboard blasts off to the International Space Station from the Baikonur Cosmodrome. Sergei Savostyanov/TASS (Photo by Sergei SavostyanovTASS via Getty Images)
While NASA’s Commercial Crew providers continue their work towards operational flights, Russia’s Soyuz vehicle retains its monopoly on crew transportation to the ISS. 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 and Tiangong Space Station
BEIJING, Oct. 19, 2016 — Photo taken on Oct. 19, 2016 shows the screen at the Beijing Aerospace . [+] Control Center showing a simulated picture of an automated docking between the Shenzhou-11 manned spacecraft and the orbiting space lab Tiangong-2. The Shenzhou-11 manned spacecraft successfully completed its automated docking with the orbiting Tiangong-2 space lab Wednesday morning, according to Beijing Aerospace Control Center. (Xinhua/Ju Zhenhua via Getty Images)
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, dubbed 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 create 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 . [+] Springs, Colorado on April 9, 2019. – NASA is preparing to use the SLS rocket to send US astronauts to the moon in 2024. The four day symposium is the largest space trade show in the world, attracting leaders focusing on space technology, satellite development, rocket design, and space policy. (Photo by Jason Connolly / AFP) (Photo credit should read JASON CONNOLLY/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. In addition to advancing human spaceflight, one of the project’s major goals is to inspire the creation of new art to promote peace across the world. Initial tests of the Starship system have commenced in Boca Chica, Texas, using subscale models of the spacecraft.
SpaceX Starship design as of September 2018, at the unveiling of the #dearMoon mission.
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.