Generations going back to the late 60s can recall a space launch or event that captured their imagination and filled them with a sense of awe. From the Apollo and the Space Shuttle to the Mars Rover and the International Space Station, we have literally reached for the stars in our pursuit of space exploration.
However, it was eight years ago that NASA retired the Space Shuttle. The space administration has since been relying on the Russians for transporting personnel and cargo to and from space. What is NASA’s next move, and who does it involve?
The answer can best be summarized in two words: private ventures.
The Emergence of Private Space Travel
On Saturday morning, March 2nd, SpaceX successfully launched its new Crew Dragon capsule from Cape Canaveral, Florida, bringing it one step closer to carrying passengers into space. Mounted atop the SpaceX’s Falcon 9, the Crew Dragon made orbit in 11 minutes en route to the International Space Station. With the success of the launch, SpaceX is now set to launch the first manned flight in July of this year. It will mark the first time that a private company has launched a human into space.
The Crew Dragon plays an integral role in NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, which is designed to transport passengers to and from the International Space Station. This is part of a larger initiative to reignite space activity using American technology and to enlist American astronauts once again.
Jeff Bezo’s company, Blue Origin, is also on the verge of sending passengers into space via the New Shepherd and New Glen space projects that include reusable rockets. The concept sounds simple enough. Blue Origin’s website explains it this way,
New Glenn lifts off from Launch Complex 36 at Cape Canaveral. Following stage separation, the first stage flies back to Earth and lands nearly 1,000 km downrange on a moving ship, allowing the booster to land in heavy sea-states. The second stage engines ignite, and the 7-meter fairing separates. The mission is complete when the cargo is delivered safely to orbit.
Along with SpaceX’s Dragon, Blue Origin’s projects could result in spaceflight options for astronauts.
Virgin Galactic — the brainchild of Richard Branson — launched its first test passenger into space back in February. Astronauts Beth Moses, Dave Mackay, and Michael Masucci climbed to an altitude of 55.87 miles (ca. 90 km). Although the flight was below the Karman line of 62 miles (ca. 100 km) (the actual start of space), it was a feat for Virgin Galactic and commercial space travel.
In addition to SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, and Blue origin, other companies such as Boeing are already making plans to launch actual passengers by the end of 2019.
When Will NASA Return to Space Travel?
Back in 2010, the NASA space program unofficially and indefinitely came to a halt. NASA gave commercial companies $50 million to design space travel technology of the future. Two of these companies included SpaceX and Boeing. Nine years later, these companies are finally on the verge of delivering on their promises of transporting cargo and astronauts into space.
NASA’s Commercial Crew Program has suffered from delays and other issues since its inception. NASA’s target date for an official launch was 2015 then pushed to 2017, and then moved back to 2018. The cause for delay, of course, has been concern over passenger safety and craft stability.
However, SpaceX and Boeing are demonstrating incredible resilience in spite of these issues and the ongoing delays. As of early 2018, NASA Website reported that they have several ongoing projects they are currently involved in.
As to when we can expect the actual launch of an astronaut past mile 62? Only the experts know. One thing is for sure: Once the first successful launch happens, it won’t be long before we move beyond the friendly skies.
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