It’s shaping up to be a stellar year for space
Elon Musk is prone to tweeting out artistic renderings of the rockets and spacecraft he intends to build, offering his followers a glimpse of the future he imagines for humanity on other planets. So when he recently posted a photo of a launchpad walkway leading out to his rocket and spacecraft, Musk felt compelled to clarify in a follow-up tweet.
“Sorry, to be clear, this pic is real,” he wrote. “Nothing rendered.”
Though the prospect of the return of human spaceflight from United States soil has at times seemed like a mirage, NASA’s astronauts could this year return to space from the Florida Space Coast for the first time since the space shuttle was retired more than seven years ago. If successful, it would punctuate a year that government and industry officials believe could mark a turning point in the United States space program, which could see all sorts of new milestones as NASA celebrates the 50th anniversary of the lunar landing.
Boeing is also working to develop a spacecraf it hopes would ferry NASA’s astronauts to the International Space Station by the end of 2019, meaning there would be not one but two American spacecraft capable of flying astronauts to orbit. After successfully scratching what many consider the edge of space last month, Virgin Galactic is planning to make space tourism a reality in 2019. Blue Origin also hopes to fly its first test mission to space this year. And small rocket companies hope to start launching to orbit on a more regular basis.
NASA is pushing for a return to the moon, and the White House has made space a national priority again, reconstituting the National Space Council, led by Vice President Mike Pence.
“We’ve been working to get back to the Moon and go on to Mars for years, creating a diversified suborbital and low-Earth orbit economy, and searching for the political, technical, and monetary will to make it a reality,” said Jared Stout, the former deputy executive secretary of the Space Council who is now a policy adviser at Venable, a law firm. “In 2019, we are at the precipice of realizing the dreams of decades of planning and energy poured into the space enterprise.”
When it comes to space, there are always setbacks and delays. Getting off the surface of the Earth is difficult and dangerous. It requires enormous amounts of energy, and nothing ever seems to go according to schedule.
Virgin Galactic had a fatal accident in 2014. And Musk recently tweeted that the uncrewed first flight of the spacecraft designed to carry humans “will be extremely intense.”
“Early flights are especially dangerous, as there’s a lot of new hardware.”
Those caveats aside, here’s a look at some of what’s to come in 2019.
Commercial crew: In 2014, when NASA awarded Boeing and SpaceX contracts to fly its astronauts to the space station, then-NASA administrator Charles Bolden said it would set “the stage for what promises to be the most ambitious and exciting chapter in the history of NASA and human space flight.”
He vowed the first flights would take place by 2017, ending NASA’s reliance on Russia to fly its astronauts to space.
The program has suffered setbacks, including a lack of congressional funding. Now both Boeing and SpaceX are scheduled to fly test flights with humans this year, though many think there will be continued delays to the program, potentially pushing at least one of the human flights to next year.
SpaceX was expected to fly a test mission without humans on board this month, but NASA recently announced that would be delayed to February.
In the meantime, NASA is conducting a safety review of the companies, spurred by Musk smoking marijuana on a podcast.
SpaceX: After coming off a momentous 2018, in which it flew a record 21 times, the company hopes to continue its cadence this year. SpaceX has a full manifest of commercial satellites to launch, in addition to the national security payloads it lifts for the Pentagon and the cargo it carries to the space station for NASA.
It is planning two more flights of the Falcon Heavy rocket, the most powerful in operation today. Last year, it flew for the first time, delivering a Tesla Roadster on a trip toward Mars.
After mastering the art of recovering the first stages of rockets, which had traditionally been tossed into the ocean, SpaceX is working on catching another part of its rockets: the nose cone or fairing.