Space, Spaceflight

The Decade in Spaceflight

Rocket technology has come a long way since the start of the decade, with the rise of commercial spaceflight and integration of public and private agencies.

It began with the end of an era. The space shuttle program was NASA’s longest running mission series, with its first launch way back in 1981. The program was instrumental in countless breakthroughs, launching both Hubble and the International Space Station. But after 135 missions, 5 shuttles and 2 disasters, the shuttle was retired, with its final launch on July 8th 2011 in front of a crowd of nearly 1 million! 

This left NASA reliant on the Russian Soyuz rocket, which became the monopoly in human space travel, so prices rose from below $30m per seat before the end of the shuttle program to ~$50 million immediately after, and then *rocketed* year on year to a huge $90m (including training and flight operations) this year.

NASA astronaut details fall to Earth after failed Soyuz launch - CNET

NASA was in need of an alternative solution, and they found it with the commercial crew program, in which they financed the development of both Boeing Starliner and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule, with the latter simply being an upgraded, crew rated version of the DragonX capsule that had been supplying ISS since 2012, so it makes sense that the company behind the first commercial resupply mission also be part of the first commercial crewed mission!

SpaceX Dragon - Wikipedia

Alongside this were other private companies like Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin, Rocket Labs and dozens of other defence/aerospace corporations that have ventured into the space industry, striving to make space more accessible. They are definitely slowly succeeding on the rocket/satellite launch front but crewed spaceflight for all is a little way off for most companies- but who knows where the next decade will take us!

Virgin Galactic delays commercial SpaceShipTwo spaceflights until 2021 |  Space

Although Starliner is yet to be crew rated after a failed orbital flight test, the decade ended in stark contrast to its beginning, with the start of a new era of commercial human spaceflight, though the launch of Crew Dragon was watched not by a million crowding around Kennedy Space Centre, but more than 10 million watching online.

Its success was a huge deal: NASA will be spending half as much on reaching low earth orbit, and the political benefits of having crewed rockets launching from US soil once again can’t be ignored. It shows that cooperating with private industry is possible- beneficial, even, and will help us with the main mission of the next decade… returning to the moon! By the end of the 2020’s we will hopefully have not just continuous presence in low earth orbit, but astronauts living on the moon… and who knows- maybe even Mars!

What do you think the next decade will bring?

Read the first part: The Decade in Space Exploration, which discusses the advancements in astronomy over the 2010s, here!

this is an extended version of a piece I wrote for a school project


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