The Year Ahead/Technology

Commercial Spaceflight Is About to Get Real

The big rocket companies aim to pass major milestones in 2018.

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket on the launch pad at Vandenberg Air Force Base.

Source: SpaceX

Next year will mark the 50th anniversary of the first manned lunar mission, during which three Apollo 8 astronauts orbited the moon and gave the U.S. a decisive lead in its space race against the Soviet Union. These days, with NASA’s milestones receding in the national memory, Russian spaceships are the ones ferrying American astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS). If all goes well, that will change in 2018.

This moment is a big one for the handful of companies that have spent much more than a decade working toward commercial spaceflight. Boeing Co. and Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corp. are preparing to bring NASA scientists to the ISS by this time next year, not long after five teams race unmanned landers to the moon to win the $20 million Google Lunar XPrize. Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic LLC and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin LLC have suborbital flights scheduled. Rocket Lab USA Inc. and Virgin Orbit, Virgin Galactic’s satellite arm, expect to begin launching satellites. And SpaceX plans to use its own astronauts to reprise 1968’s history-making flight.

NASA, for one, is counting on commercial efforts to succeed next year. Even unmanned tests of spaceships from SpaceX and Boeing “would be a major milestone in getting the U.S. back into launching its own astronauts into space,” says Douglas Messier, managing editor of Parabolic Arc, a commercial-space blog. NASA hasn’t had that capability since it retired the Space Shuttle in 2011.

NASA’s Commercial Crew Program is targeting April for the SpaceX Dragon 2’s first test flight and August for a manned flight. Boeing is slated to test-fly its CST-100 Starliner unmanned in August and crew it in November. The two companies have received a combined $7.9 billion in development money from NASA, including $6.8 billion in launch contracts to transport astronauts.

Blue Origin shows off its suborbital New Shepard spacecraft at the Experimental Aviation Association’s annual gathering in Oshkosh, Wis., in July.
Source: Blue Origin

Sometime after its manned flight in August, SpaceX says, the Dragon 2 will make its moon-orbiting flyby with two paying passengers. The company won’t say how much those tickets cost, but the price is likely to be far more than the $40 million the last private astronaut, Canadian billionaire Guy Laliberté, paid the Russians to reach the ISS almost a decade ago.

Suborbital spaceflights, which breach the atmosphere but don’t go fast enough to reach the continuous free fall of orbit, will be almost as important in 2018, says Charles Lurio, who publishes the Lurio Report, an industry newsletter. Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic are both testing suborbital craft (Blue Origin’s unmanned, Virgin’s with test pilots) and say they’re aiming to reach manned zero-gravity flights in 2018. Those trips, Lurio says, “will start to give the first tangible idea of the potential market for suborbital flight.”

Satellite launches are a different story. Rocket Lab, which flew a suborbital test flight of its Electron rocket in May, says it plans to make its first flight to orbit in December and begin charging customers to put their satellites in space next year. Virgin Orbit has a similar timetable, and its cargo room is long gone, says Will Pomerantz, vice president for special projects. “Our manifest for 2018 is already fully sold,” he says, “as is much of 2019 and 2020.”

(Updated fourth paragraph to correct NASA funding totals.)
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