Physics, Space, Spaceflight

The Future of Human Spaceflight

It is an exciting time for space travel! Preparations for NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) is well underway, multiple space agencies have announced their cooperation for the Lunar Orbital Gateway, and private companies are competing to launch the first tourists commercially! Let’s take a look at some of the awesome projects that will almost certainly be taking off (!!) in the next few years.

Commercial Spaceflight

SpaceX

When you think of private space companies, SpaceX springs to mind. They are a company of many firsts: The first private company to dock with the ISS on a resupply mission, the first organisation to create a truly reusable rocket, and soon to be the first private company to complete a crewed mission to the ISS! Recently, they launched their Crew Dragon module… and it successfully docked with the space station! (resulting in new arrivals Earthy and Ripley to the ISS!). SpaceX truly marks a new era of spaceflight:

  • The In-Flight suit is *awesome*! The helmet is 3D printed, and the gloves are touchscreen compatible! As well as all the important stuff of course, like pressurising and cooling systems!
  • One of their initial selling points is that their rockets are reusable. Although most rockets are designed to burn up on re-entry, the Falcon rockets are designed to return to earth in a controlled fashion. This means that, although they cost more than the Soyuz to build, in the long run, they are cheaper!
  • The Abort System works well due to the innovative configuration of thrusters (they are integrated into the vehicle, rather than being carried on top. In theory, this makes them super safe for the next generation of astronaut’s, hopefully preventing the disasters of the early Apollo/Soyuz.
Collage of 3 images: the futuristic, sleek SpaceX spacesuit (black and white apart from the logo on the shoulder); SpaceX logo with black background; and an orbiting DragonX capsule, solar panels fully extended, flying above a blue sea and desert land
SpaceX suit, logo, and DragonX Capsule

“If one can figure out how to effectively reuse rockets just like airplanes, the cost of access to space will be reduced by as much as a factor of a hundred.  A fully reusable vehicle has never been done before. That really is the fundamental breakthrough needed to revolutionize access to space.” —Elon Musk

Virgin Galactic

Virgin Galactic (not to be confused with Virgin Atlantic), is most certainly at the forefront of space tourism! Part of the Virgin Group, it works with The Spaceship Company (Virgin’s aerospace manufacturing company) and Virgin Orbit (Virgin’s satellite launch service) to provide commercial trips to space!

The futuristic space plane and launch system make it incredibly attractive to their rich customer base- 700 people have paid up to $250,000 for a 90-minute suborbital flight-some of these have been signed up since 2011. But now, it seems like their dreams are very near;y about to come true: after the first successful flight in December 2018, and another that followed in February 2019 (this time with their first ‘passenger’- the company’s astronaut trainer!)

Virgin Galactic's futuristic Space Plane in flight over the Mojave Desert. The underside displays the Virgin Group logo.
SpaceShipTwo flying over the Mojave desert

How it works: WhiteKnightTwo, a carrier plane, lifts the SpaceShipTwo up to its launch altitude, where it is dropped into free fall before firing its rocket engines and zooming up to space at 4000 km/hr to reach a height of 110 km- above the Karman line (100km) that defines the edge of space. It will carry two pilots and 6 passengers, launching from the Mojave Desert, California, at some point in the next few years.

SpaceShipTwo being carried by WhightKnightTwo

Why I think its cool? It is literally a space plane! And, their Chief Astronaut Trainer (Beth Moses) is a #WomanInSTEM!

Blue Origin

Blue Origin is yet another commercial spaceflight company run by a billionaire! This time, its Jeff Bezos, also known as the guy behind Amazon. Their currently operable launch vehicle is the sub-orbital flying New Glenn, which, like, SpaceShipTwo, reaches the Karman line, but is sub-orbital. The trip is much faster than Virgin Galactic’s, 11 minutes compared to approximately 2 hours. However, the time passenger’s spend ‘in space’ weightless is roughly the same length, and the cost similar. Blue Origin has a more traditional launch and landing compared to Virgin Galactic, and the rocket is reusable (see flight path below).

Flight path showing launch, separation just below 100km, booster landing and capsule landing
Flight Path of New Shepard

Although the outside is perhaps not as sleek as the other commercial spaceflight companies, the inside definitely makes up for it! Plus, they hope to launch their first crewed flight this year, after yet another successful test in January 2019

National Agencies

If commercial isn’t quite within your price range, NASA do have some exciting projects they are working on at the moment!

Space Launch System and Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway

Although perhaps not quite as sleek as the commercial spacecraft, NASA has built its most powerful rocket yet: the Space Launch System (SLS)! It is NASA’s answer to the step towards human exploration and eventual colonisation of the solar system! Its first flight is planned to be in summer 2020, and will be followed 2 years by the first crewed lunar flyby since the Apollo Era! This will be the crewed debut of the Orion module too- a spacecraft designed to deliver 4 astronauts to low earth orbit and beyond. Although the long term goal is to set foot on the Moon once again and eventually to Mars, NASA currently has its sights set on a Lunar Orbiter! This is the purpose most of the proposed missions using SLS and will start being built in 2024 or thereabouts. Like the International Space Station, it will be a huge international collaboration, with modules from ESA, Roscosmos, JAXA and CSA already committed! In my eyes, this project is super important: not just for furthering space exploration, but as an image of cooperation and hope at a time where humanity is so divided.

Unlike the Saturn V rockets, which all looked pretty much the same, SLS can be adapted to fit each mission’s purpose. These different adaptations are called blocks.

SLS blocks

As you can tell, the next few years and decades should be a really exciting time, with the advent of commercial spaceflight- and eventually- travel to and from lunar orbit will become just as *ordinary* as flying to the space station!

Would you want to go on a commercial space flight? Is a lunar orbiter the right way to go about building a space-faring civilisation? Let me know what you think in the comments!

☆☆☆

If you can’t trust an atom… trust in science!

☆it’s like magic, but it’s true whether you believe in it or not!☆

See you next time!

☆☆☆


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4 thoughts on “The Future of Human Spaceflight”

  1. Heya Jade, this is Charlotte from ISSET. Felix told me about this blog a while ago and I’ve been following your posts. They’re really interesting and I think it’s great that you’re making these topics so accessible with a friendly narrative voice. This post definitely taught me a lot! Good luck with the future of the blog! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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