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.

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