Four new US spacecraft can start launching people into space this year

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It seems that the long drought of human spaceflight in the United States is about to end, in a big way.

No astronaut has launched into orbit from American soil since July 2011, when NASA space shuttle fleet was withdrawn Since then, the nation has relied on Russian rocket and spacecraft Soyuz to take crew members to and from the International Space Station (ISS).

NASA has the private sector to fill the ferry shoes. The agency’s Commercial Crew program awarded multi-million dollar contracts from Boeing and SpaceX in 2014 to obtain their astronaut taxis. CST-100 Starliner Y Crew Dragon, respectively – in operation.

Related: Crew Dragon and Starliner: a look at the next astronaut taxis

Both capsules are approaching, especially Crew Dragon, which now has two major milestones to its credit. In March 2019, the SpaceX capsule flew an unmanned test mission to the ISS called Demo-1. And, on Sunday (January 19), Crew Dragon performed a crucial abortion test in flight (IFA), which demonstrates the ability of the spacecraft to remove astronauts from danger in the event of an emergency during launch.

NASA and SpaceX still need to analyze all IFA data, and agency officials want to see two more complete tests of Crew Dragon’s renewed parachute system. But once those boxes are checked, the capsule will be cleared to fly NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to and from the ISS, on a test mission known as Demo-2.

It shouldn’t be long before that historic release; there is a good chance that Demo-2 will take off sometime this spring, founder and CEO of SpaceX Elon musk He said during a press conference following IFA on Sunday.

The contracted operational manned missions would follow. The 2014 SpaceX agreement, which is worth $ 2.6 billion, calls the company to fly six of those flights with Crew Dragon and the Falcon 9 rocket.

The Boeing contract has similar terms but is worth $ 4.2 billion. The recent path of the aerospace giant has been a bit more rugged than that of SpaceX. During the Starliner version of Demo-1 – the unmanned Orbital flight test (OFT), which happened last month: the Boeing vehicle suffered a problem with its on-board timing system and was stranded in an orbit too low to allow an appointment with the ISS. Then, the capsule surrounded the Earth by itself and fell after only two days in orbit instead of the eight originally planned.

But Starliner performed well during his time in space, and achieved a perfect touchdown at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. Therefore, it is possible that the next flight of the capsule is a manned test mission to the IEE, rather than a repeat of the OFT, said NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine earlier this month. The agency is reflecting on the next steps and he hopes to make a decision in the coming weeks, he added.

(Unlike Crew Dragon, Starliner will not conduct a flight abortion test. Boeing’s capsule demonstrated its ground escape system last November, in a pad abortion test. SpaceX also performed an abortion test with pad, in 2015).

“We are about to market the Earth’s low orbit,” Bridenstine said during Sunday’s press conference.

Related: The future of private spaceflight (Gallery)

Suborbital ships too

And great things are also happening in the suborbital field. In fact, two companies, Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin, can start flying passengers to this region of space in 2020.

Virgin Galactic has already carried out two manned suborbital missions with VSS Unity, its new SpaceShipTwo space plane. These pilot test flights, which occurred in December 2018 and February 2019, did not lead to any paying customer, but that milestone is expected to occur sometime this year.

In August, for example, Virgin Galactic declared its Gateway to Space Spaceport America installation in New Mexico operational. Spaceport America will be the center of Virgin Galactic’s business operations; The six-passenger SpaceShipTwo, which is transported by a plane called WhiteKnightTwo, will take off and land there.

More than 600 people have deposited a deposit to travel to space SpaceShipTwo; A seat on board the vehicle currently costs $ 250,000.

Blue Origin, which was founded in 2000 by Jeff Bezos of Amazon.com, may also be preparing for a great 2020. Last month, the company undertook another unmanned test mission with its reusable New Shepard system, which consists of a suborbital rocket and a six-passenger capsule. It was the sixth test flight for this New Shepard vehicle and the twelfth for the system in general.

The representatives of Blue Origin had the objective of starting the passenger flights of New Shepard late last year. It is not surprising that this has not happened; Delaying timelines is common in the world of human spaceflight. After all, in 2004, Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson predicted that SpaceShipTwo would be fully operational in 2007. (However, there is an operational component for the SpaceShipTwo and New Shepard test flights; vehicles commonly carry experiments scientists for NASA, university groups and other organizations).

In fact, Blue Origin recently “hit the brakes“a little to make sure that all the various New Shepard systems are ready for passenger flights.

“We have a couple more [test] flights before arriving there, “said Ariane Cornell, director of sales of astronauts and orbitals at Blue Origin, during the online broadcast of the New Shepard test mission in December.

But 2020 has just begun, so it is not difficult to imagine that New Shepard is checking the boxes required for the end of the year.

Blue Origin has not disclosed the exact price of a ticket for New Shepard, saying it will initially cost “hundreds of thousands of dollars.” Both Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin aim to significantly reduce ticket prices over time, thus opening the opportunity to a much wider segment of the world’s population.

Stay tuned; It should be an exciting year!

Mike Wall’s book on the search for extraterrestrial life “Out there“(Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), It is now available. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook.

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