Owen Freeman
Owen Freeman

The future of spaceflight—from orbital vacations to humans on Mars

NASA aims to travel to the moon again—and beyond. Here’s a look at the 21st-century race to send humans into space.

Welcome to the 21st-century space race, one that could potentially lead to 10-minute space vacations, orbiting space hotels, and humans on Mars. Now, instead of warring superpowers battling for dominance in orbit, private companies are competing to make space travel easier and more affordable. This year, SpaceX achieved a major milestone—launching humans to the International Space Station (ISS) from the United States—but additional goalposts are on the star-studded horizon.

Private spaceflight

Private spaceflight is not a new concept. In the United States, commercial companies played a role in the aerospace industry right from the start: Since the 1960s, NASA has relied on private contractors to build spacecraft for every major human spaceflight program, starting with Project Mercury and continuing until the present.

Today, NASA’s Commercial Crew Program is expanding on the agency’s relationship with private companies. Through it, NASA is relying on SpaceX and Boeing to build spacecraft capable of carrying humans into orbit. Once those vehicles are built, both companies retain ownership and control of the craft, and NASA can send astronauts into space for a fraction of the cost of a seat on Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft.

SpaceX, which established a new paradigm by developing reusable rockets, has been running regular cargo resupply missions to the International Space Station since 2012. And in May 2020, the company’s Crew Dragon spacecraft carried NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken to the ISS, becoming the first crewed mission to launch from the United States in nearly a decade. The mission, called Demo-2, is scheduled to return to Earth in August. Boeing is currently developing its Starliner spacecraft and hopes to begin carrying astronauts to the ISS in 2021.

Other companies, such as Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic, are specializing in sub-orbital space tourism. Test launch video from inside the cabin of Blue Origin’s New Shepard shows off breathtaking views of our planet and a relatively calm journey for its first passenger, a test dummy cleverly dubbed “Mannequin Skywalker.” Virgin Galactic is running test flights on its sub-orbital spaceplane, which will offer paying customers roughly six minutes of weightlessness during its journey through Earth’s atmosphere.

With these and other spacecraft in the pipeline, countless dreams of zero-gravity somersaults could soon become a reality—at least for passengers able to pay the hefty sums for the experience.

Looking to the moon

Moon missions are essential to the exploration of more distant worlds. After a long hiatus from the lunar neighborhood, NASA is again setting its sights on Earth’s nearest celestial neighbor with an ambitious plan to place a space station in lunar orbit sometime in the next decade. Sooner, though, the agency’s Artemis program, a sister to the Apollo missions of the 1960s and 1970s, is aiming to put the first woman (and the next man) on the lunar surface by 2024.

Extended lunar stays build the experience and expertise needed for the long-term space missions required to visit other planets. As well, the moon may also be used as a forward base of operations from which humans learn how to replenish essential supplies, such as rocket fuel and oxygen, by creating them from local material.

Such skills are crucial for the future expansion of human presence into deeper space, which demands more independence from Earth-based resources. And although humans have visited the moon before, the cratered sphere still harbors its own scientific mysteries to be explored—including the presence and extent of water ice near the moon's south pole, which is one of the top target destinations for space exploration.

NASA is also enlisting the private sector to help it reach the moon. It has awarded three contracts to private companies working on developing human-rated lunar landers—including both Blue Origin and SpaceX. But the backbone of the Artemis program relies on a brand new, state-of-the-art spacecraft called Orion.

Currently being built and tested, Orion—like Crew Dragon and Starliner—is a space capsule similar to the spacecraft of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs, as well as Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft. But the Orion capsule is larger and can accommodate a four-person crew. And even though it has a somewhat retro design, the capsule concept is considered to be safer and more reliable than NASA’s space shuttle—a revolutionary vehicle for its time, but one that couldn’t fly beyond Earth’s orbit and suffered catastrophic failures.

Capsules, on the other hand, offer launch-abort capabilities that can protect astronauts in case of a rocket malfunction. And, their weight and design mean they can also travel beyond Earth’s immediate neighborhood, potentially ferrying humans to the moon, Mars, and beyond.

A new era in spaceflight

By moving into orbit with its Commercial Crew Program and partnering with private companies to reach the lunar surface, NASA hopes to change the economics of spaceflight by increasing competition and driving down costs. If space travel truly does become cheaper and more accessible, it’s possible that private citizens will routinely visit space and gaze upon our blue, watery home world—either from space capsules, space stations, or even space hotels like the inflatable habitats Bigelow Aerospace intends to build.

The United States isn’t the only country with its eyes on the sky. Russia regularly launches humans to the International Space Station aboard its Soyuz spacecraft. China is planning a large, multi-module space station capable of housing three taikonauts, and has already launched two orbiting test vehicles—Tiangong-1 and Tiangong-2, both of which safely burned up in the Earth’s atmosphere after several years in space.

Now, more than a dozen countries have the ability to launch rockets into Earth orbit. A half-dozen space agencies have designed spacecraft that shed the shackles of Earth’s gravity and traveled to the moon or Mars. And if all goes well, the United Arab Emirates will join that list in the summer of 2020 when its Hope spacecraft heads to the red planet. While there are no plans yet to send humans to Mars, these missions—and the discoveries that will come out of them—may help pave the way.