When Is America’s Next Manned Spaceflight?

Space Shuttle Countdown Clock
STS-121 launches from Kennedy Space Center. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Just before 5 a.m. Eastern on July 21, 2011, the Space Shuttle Atlantis landed at Kennedy Space Center for the final time. No American manned spaceflight has taken place since:

Currently, it has been more than five years since the Space Shuttle program came to a conclusion. This is how long ago that was:

Time since the last manned American spaceflight (STS-135):

“That’s terrible! NASA’s fallen down on the job! Blame Obama!” you say. But you miss the context. The United States of America has gone even longer without sending a person into space from its shores.

The Apollo-Soyuz Test Project mission, the final Apollo spacecraft flight, splashed down after a nine-day mission on July 24, 1975. Precisely 2,089 days later (5 years, 8 months and 19 days), Columbia lifted off from Cape Canaveral on the inaugural Space Shuttle flight, beginning the orbiter program’s 30-year career.

For America’s current manned spaceflight drought to last that long, we’d have to go without a manned flight through April 9, 2017.

Time to go until America’s current manned spaceflight drought eclipses the time between ASTP (1975) and STS-1 (1981):

In the meantime, American astronauts bound for the ISS have to hitch rides on Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft, launched from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. At $82 million a seat, it’s not cheap for the American taxpayer (and that’s up from before). So the desire to get a program that can launch astronauts from American spaceports operational is quite strong around NASA.

There are several candidates, NASA merely one among them, for the next manned spaceflight to lift off from American soil. Here’s who is closest and when they might go:

SpaceX Dragon V2

First Scheduled Manned Spaceflight: Sometime in Mid-2017

Elon Musk’s SpaceX and its Dragon spacecraft are currently the closest to breaking the American space drought, which is pretty incredible for a private company. The Dragon V2 spacecraft, a manned version of their successful Dragon ISS resupply ship, is still undergoing development, although it has passed some significant milestones, including a hover test for its SuperDraco landing/escape rocket engines:

Dragon also passed a successful Pad Abort test in May of 2015 at the Cape:

The current plan is for Dragon V2 to fly an unmanned test flight in May of 2017 before putting real live people in it for a flight in the middle of the year. Operational missions, likely to the ISS, are expected to follow shortly thereafter, according to this piece in SpaceNews.

SpaceX has already racked up an impressive list of firsts, from being the first private company to successfully launch a spacecraft into orbit to being the first entity of any kind to land a used first rocket stage after it had been used in an operational launch.

But SpaceX has also had its share of mishaps, most recently the explosion of a Falcon 9 carrying the CRS7 Dragon ISS resupply capsule in June of 2015. The company said afterwards that, had it been a manned spacecraft, the abort system would probably have worked well enough to save the lives of anyone inside, according to Popular Science.

So while it is still likely that the company will be America’s first orbital standard-bearer since Atlantis, exactly when that happens, given Elon Musk’s company’s understandable conservatism, will rely on not hitting any unexpected technical hurdles along the way – something that may indeed happen, if we know anything about manned space flight. Still, their date for a manned flight is currently the most specific.

Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser

First Scheduled Manned Spaceflight: 2017

Perhaps the most ambitious of the private contenders for NASA’s Commercial Crew requirement, Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser lifting body. SNC scored a big victory with its securing of a NASA CRS-2 contract, which calls for manned launches to the ISS as soon as 2019 – not bad for a long-time space hardware firm’s first manned spacecraft, especially when you consider it is supposed to carry up to seven astronauts and land on a runway.

Dream Chaser has already completed an unpiloted glide flight, proving its automatic systems’ ability to bring the wingless craft in for a smooth landing. However, the left main landing gear failed to deploy, which resulted in the machine skidding off the runway at Edwards, not to mention a painfully awkward conclusion to the company’s video news release:

As of 2014, Dream Chaser was scheduled for an unmanned orbital test flight aboard an Atlas V launch vehicle in November of 2016, according to the BBC, with a first manned mission occurring in 2017. But no SNC launch is scheduled as of this writing for the 2016 calendar year, which leads one to believe that the company is pushing back sending the Dream Chaser to space until at least 2017.

Boeing CST-100 StarLiner

First Scheduled Manned Spaceflight: February 2018

Boeing’s StarLiner is a stripping-down of Boeing’s leftover work on the ill-fated Constellation program for use in the CRS program. Boeing is the only traditional aerospace giant involved in private spaceflight at the moment, and given the considerable resources it can throw behind the program, it would not be a logistical stretch to expect the Starliner to become operational quite quickly.

Yet, there have been delays. Initially scheduled for a first flight in early 2017, Boeing announced in an investor’s call just recently that the schedule had been pushed back by at least eight months due to mass reduction and aerodynamic problems with its planed Atlas V launch vehicle. The current schedule looks like this:

  • October 2017 – Pad Abort Test
  • December 2017 – Unmanned Orbital Test (30 days)
  • February 2018 – First Manned Orbital Flight, including a trip to ISS (14 days)

Boeing didn’t get any help from being dropped from NASA’s CRS-2 contract consideration in favor of SpaceX, Orbital ATK and Sierra Nevada in November of 2015. As of now, Starliner is still getting NASA funding under the Commercial Crew Integration Capability (CCiCap), and Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) programs, but whether Boeing elects to keep the program going long enough for it to make a run at any CRS-3 missions to the ISS, which wouldn’t start any sooner than 2024, is a matter of debate.

NASA – Orion

First Scheduled Manned Spaceflight: April 2023 (or hopefully 2021)

Ironically, NASA’s own underfunded and over-politicized Orion capsule has the longest lead time to its first manned expedition, set currently for “no later than April 2023” according to Space.com, although there’s an “aggressive internal deadline” of 2021.

Compounding the funding and political problems of Orion are:

  • An antiquated, bureaucratic development structure.
  • The Space Launch System (SLS) launch vehicle, derisively called the Senate Launch System, since it was stipulated by non-space people to use existing leftover technology from the Shuttle and Apollo programs, eschewing innovation.
  • No real place to go. The Moon? Been there. An asteroid? Likely too complex. Mars? Too risky give current technology.

Orion’s first unmanned test, EFT-1, was an astounding success, and gave us a tantalizing glimpse into what we would regularly see from an operational Orion:

Fun as that was, unmanned flights aren’t where the meat is, and Orion is still a long way off from there. Here’s the tentative schedule:

As NASA’s ostensible platform for lunar and interplanetary exploration, Orion isn’t part of the CCDev program. But that subjects it to the sluggish NASA bureaucracy, which has proven itself to be the mother of all bureaucracies.

Blue Origin

First Scheduled Manned Spaceflight: ?

All we know at this point is that Amazon.com tycoon Jeff Bezos’ company is planning to unveil a new orbital launch vehicle and spacecraft sometime in 2016. That’s it.

Blue Origin has already found some lucrative commercial success with its proposed BE-4 engine, a liquid methane-oxygen staged combustion rocket engine that United Launch Alliance hopes will obviate its need for Russian-built, and thus highly politically sensitive, Energomash RD-180 engines currently in use with the Atlas V on its new rocket, the Vulcan, slated for launch in 2019. The BE-4 is slated for test firing in late 2016.

But as far as launching its own hardware, there seem to be a lot of high-minded promises and pretty renderings, but precious few specifics.

This is par for the course for Blue Origin, which has made Soviet-level secrecy a habit. Per their M.O., we didn’t know anything about their New Shepard system’s third and latest sub-orbital hop and full recovery in early April until after it happened:

But sub-orbital hops, though an interesting toy experience for super-rich people, don’t get anyone outside the 0.01% excited. Nor should they.

By the way, someone should tell that to Richard Branson.

Perhaps Blue Origin is instead positioning itself as a prime engine manufacturer, as the technology behind the BE-4 is so advanced as to be considered impossible just a few short years ago. Its partnership with ULA would make things really awkward if Blue Origin decided to use the same advanced propulsion technology in an in-house built competitor to Vulcan.

In the meantime, it appears that SpaceX is in prime position to carry astronauts into orbit from American soil for the first time since Atlantis¬†concluded the Space Shuttle program in 2011. Things could change, especially regarding the politically sensitive nature of Defense Department missions, the fate of the Atlas V’s reliance on Russian engines, inevitable technical snags, and of course, politics.

America will return to orbit very soon – likely in the next year. When it does, however, the future of American manned spaceflight will look very different indeed from the way it was when we all grew up, as companies like SpaceX and Sierra Nevada, instead of nations, vie for NASA contracts, rather than political and technical prestige. We are now in the midst of a new space race, fueled by capitalism, and it will be a lot of fun seeing who win.