American manned spaceflight in 2018?

As readers of a previous post will know, since the retirement of the Space Shuttle in July 2011, America has been unable to put any astronauts into orbit around the Earth. Instead, it has been reliant on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS). This situation may finally change in 2018; in the final two months of the year there are two missions tentatively planned to take astronauts to the ISS on American spacecraft. Interestingly, as a result of a change in space policy by the Obama administration eight years ago, both these missions will be in spacecraft designed and built by private companies, rather than NASA.

The Boeing CT-100 Starliner Space Capsule – image from NASA. In late 2018 this spacecraft may take astronauts to and from the ISS.

In a major speech in 2010, US President Obama announced a major shift in the function of NASA in American human space flight.

By buying the services of space transportation — rather than the vehicles themselves — we can continue to ensure rigorous safety standards are met. But we will also accelerate the pace of innovations as companies — from young startups to established leaders — compete to design and build and launch new means of carrying people and materials out of our atmosphere. ….

Some have said, for instance, that this plan gives up our leadership in space by failing to produce plans within NASA to reach low Earth orbit, …. But we will actually reach space faster and more often under this new plan, in ways that will help us improve our technological capacity and lower our costs, which are both essential for the long-term sustainability of space flight.’

(White House press release 2010)

Image from Wikimedia Commons

So, rather than build its own spacecraft to replace the Space Shuttle, NASA awarded grants to private companies to support research and development into human space flight. The program had a number of phases. In the first phase five companies were awarded grants to partially fund the research and development of the key technologies and capabilities that could ultimately be used in human space transportation systems. In the next phases, NASA awarded further grants to four companies to develop spacecraft that could send to astronauts to the ISS after the Space Shuttle’s retirement.

Image from NASA

After another selection process, in 2014 NASA made the final decision that the winners of the contracts for up to six crewed flights to transport astronauts to and from the ISS were as follows.

  • Boeing – They were given a contract worth up to $4.2 billion, to transport astronauts on their CT-100 Starliner spacecraft.
  • Space X –  This is a company set up by Elon Musk, the co-founder of Paypal. They were given a contract worth up to $2.6 billion to transport astronauts on their Dragon V2 – pictured below.

For more details see the reference below (NASA 2014).



 The Dragon V2 Spacecraft – Image from NASA 

When the final decision was made it was hoped that the winning companies would be able to launch manned missions to the ISS by 2017. However, perhaps unsurprisingly, there have been numerous delays in the development of both spacecraft and the launch dates have slipped.

According to the current launch schedule ( ) , the target dates for unmanned test flight of both spacecraft are August 2018, although an exact date hasn’t been specified. If there are no further delays and these test flights do take place in August and are successful, then in November 2018 the Boeing CT 100 spacecraft will be the first American spacecraft to carry astronauts into orbit since the retirement of the Space Shuttle. This will be followed by Dragon v2 the following month.

Opportunities for space tourism

The contract terms are that both companies will charge NASA around $60 million for each seat on a flight to the ISS. This is slightly cheaper than the amount it pays to the Russian space agency for a seat aboard Soyuz. The real boost is that, rather than the money going to the Russian space agency, it will go to American companies, boosting American high technology industries and creating American jobs.

Once they have fulfilled their contractual commitments to NASA, both companies are free to sell to additional spare capacity to space tourists willing to spend around $60 million dollars for a flight into orbit. This would be a very different type of space tourism than that offered by Virgin Galactic where customers will pay $250,000 for a three hour flight of which only two minutes are above an altitude of 100 km, which is defined as the boundary of space.

.Virgin Galactic rocket motor

Artist impression of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo accelerating into Space – Image from Virgin Galactic

In February 2017 Elon Musk made the bold announcement that two individuals, who I must assume are extremely wealthy, had approached him and put down a ‘substantial deposit’ for a private spaceflight around the Moon in the Dragon v2 capsule.  At the time this was widely reported in the media e.g.

Musk refused to say who the individuals were or how much they had paid, but I would expect that the total cost of the spaceflights will be over $100 million dollars each.  To achieve enough speed to escape from the Earth’s gravity and reach the Moon the mission would use SpaceX’s new booster, the Falcon Heavy rocket, which was first launched in February 2018.

The Falcon Heavy launcher – image from Wikimedia Commons. This launcher could be used to launch a Dragon V2 spacecraft around the Moon

The spaceflight would be likely to follow a path known as free-return trajectory. I’ll talk about free-return trajectories in a later post, but essentially the idea is that it uses the Moon’s gravity to slingshot the spacecraft back to Earth, thus minimising the amount of fuel needed.

A typical free-return trajectory – image from Wikimedia Commons.

The original announcement said the spaceflight would be in 2018. However, according  to reports earlier this month, like this one, Elon Musk has said that the mission will be delayed because SpaceX will be focussing its effort on developing a new launcher with twice the thrust of Falcon Heavy. This is currently called the ‘Big Falcon Rocket’, but  I expect it it will be given a different name as the project progresses.

Therefore, I think that although this spaceflight will take place, it is unlikely to happen before 2020. However when it does occur I am sure that many people will follow it with great excitement. It will be the first time that humans have ventured outside the low Earth orbit since the last Apollo moon-flight in 1972.

Footnote – the Orion spacecraft

Even though NASA is now commissioning private companies to transport astronauts into low Earth orbit, it has not abandoned developing its own manned spacecraft altogether. It is currently developing the Orion spacecraft and a new launcher called the Space Launch System. Around 2023-5 the spacecraft is expected to take its first crew into orbit around the Earth, and it will have the capability take a crew of up to four beyond low Earth Orbit, perhaps on a mission around the Moon or to a nearby asteroid.

I hope you have enjoyed this post. To find out more about the Science Geek’s blog, click here or at the Science Geek Home link at the top of this page.


NASA (2014) NASA chooses American companies to transport U.S. astronauts to International Space Station, Available at: (Accessed: 7 February 2018).

The White House (2010) Remarks by the president on space exploration in the 21st century, Available at: 6 February 2018).


Space Tourism into Orbit and Beyond

Getting Into Orbit

Although Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo is likely to be the first spacecraft to offer mass space tourism, it only offers space tourists a short hop into space for a few minutes. (See my previous post from 5 August “The Virgin Galactic Experience” for more information.) To remain in space, a spacecraft must travel at a speed fast enough to enable it to get into orbit Any slower and the Earth’s gravity will pull it back to Earth.  It must also reach an altitude high enough so that the spacecraft is not slowed down by friction due to traces of the upper atmosphere, causing it to spiral back down to Earth. Although the boundary of space is 100 km, the minimum altitude where a spacecraft can remain in orbit for 1 day before it is dragged back to Earth is 160 km. To stay in orbit at this altitude a spacecraft must reach a speed of 17.700 mph (28,500 km/h). It obviously takes a large powerful rocket to accelerate a spacecraft large enough to carry one or more astronauts, plus their supplies, to this speed and altitude.

Space Shuttle Lift Offjpg

The Space Shuttle lifting off. Image from NASA. To put 7 astronauts, plus up to 24 tonnes of equipment, into orbit its engines and the attached boosters produced a total of 6.8 million pounds of thrust at lift off. By comparison the rocket motor on SpaceShipTwo will produce only 60 thousand pounds of thrust.

Because of size of the rockets needed and the costs involved, the only spacecraft which have put humans in orbit have been launched by large government-funded programmes. Indeed, from the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin, on 12 Apr 1961, until 30 June 2014 there have been only 293 manned space flights which have gone into Earth orbit or beyond. The numbers break down as follows

  • 126 launched by Russia/Soviet Union
  • 162 launched by the US
  • 5 launched by China.

8 of the Russian space flights have had space tourists aboard who paid between $20 million and $40 million for the trip.

Guy Laliberte

The French Canadian Guy Laliberte, founder of Cirque du Soleil, who paid $40 million for a 11 day trip into space in 2009. Image from NASA.

A New Approach

In a major speech in 2010 US president Obama announced a major shift in the function of NASA in American human space flight. To get to and from the International Space Station (ISS), the US would use  spacecraft and launchers designed, manufactured, and operated by private companies. Rather than build its own spacecraft to replace the shuttle, NASA would award grants to private companies to support research and development into human space flight. It would then provide further grants for companies to develop spacecraft capable of reaching low Earth orbit. NASA would select which company (or companies) to use to transport astronauts to and from the ISS and would buy seats on their spacecraft. Private companies would also be free to sell seats on their spacecraft to anyone else willing to pay the going rate.

Transport of astronauts to and from the space station by private companies will not start before 2017 at the earliest and, at the moment, NASA has not selected which company or companies to use. However the three finalists who were awarded funding of $1 billion between them to develop spacecraft cable of doing this job were:

  • Boeing
  • Sierra Nevada Corporation. This is a fast growing electronics and aerospace company owned by the husband and wife team of Erin and Fatih Ozmen who arrived in America from Turkey in the 1980s with little money and speaking limited English.
  • Space X.  This is a company set up by Elon Musk, the co-founder of Paypal. Pictured below

Elon Musk

Image from Wikimedia Commons -Uploaded by Corvette

Whichever of these companies wins the contract, transport of astronauts to and from the space station will only form part of their business. They will provide a orbital space tourism experience for customers willing to pay the price. For example, at a news conference in 2012, SpaceX indicated that their target launch price for crewed flights on their Dragon V2 was $140,000,000, or $20,000,000 per seat if the maximum crew of 7 is aboard, and if NASA orders at least four flights per year. In addition to the NASA contract, SpaceX could supply additional flights a year solely for space tourists willing to spend around $20 million to experience a week or so in orbit, perhaps with a brief stay of a few days in the ISS thrown in. This would be a very different experience from the short hop of a few minutes into space offered by Virgin Galactic.


 The Dragon V2 Spacecraft – Image from NASA 

Future of Orbital Space Tourism

In time, as more companies enter the market, thereby increasing the supply, and the technology become more established reducing the development costs the price of orbital space tourism should come down.  However there is still  the barrier, due to the basic laws of physics, that it takes an large amount energy to put a space capsule big enough to hold a number of humans, plus their essential supplies into orbit. This means that it can never become cheap in the way that air travel is today, but, perhaps, it  will be possible by 2045 to spend a week in space for equivalent of say $1-2 million in today’s money. Sadly this is well beyond the budget of Mr and Mrs Geek.

Next Post

I hope you have enjoyed this post. Mrs Geek and I are off on holiday to Scotland next week. When we return my next post will be about the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, a subject which has fascinated me since childhood.