After NASA retired its shuttle fleet in 2011, it left the United States without a domestic way to transport astronauts and cargo into space.  The International Space Station (ISS), of course, is up there 24-7, and funded until 2020.  It may even operate until 2028, but that dream can only continue with the continued transport of people and cargo to the ISS.  Right now for humans,  our only source for transportation is the Russian Soyuz.  Russia,  Japan and Europe were able to help us transfer cargo via ProgressHTV and ATV respectively.  But, until Dragon’s successful mission in May this year (2012), no cargo vehicles could return a significant volume of payloads to Earth.  Of course it doesn’t have the payload capacity of shuttle, but it is certainly a step in the right direction since Progress, HTV, and ATV all burn up on re-entry, and Soyuz has an extremely limited payload capacity.

Dragon is the first commercial vehicle in history to successfully attach to the ISS, and is a great leap in getting the United States a foot hold in manned space flight again.  Previously, only government entities had ever accomplished such a mission.  SpaceX is working to get a crewed version of Dragon, which would carry up to seven astronauts to the ISS, and potentially deep space destinations such as Mars.  Their target launch price for crewed flights is roughly estimated at $20,000,000 per seat, which is a significant contrast with the current Soyuz launch cost of $63,000,000 per seat.  Plus, this keeps that money here in the United States rather than investing overseas.  Dragon is expecting to begin flying people to space within the next few years.

So what else is coming for the future of U.S. space flight?  A lot actually.  There are at least 10 new vehicles in the makings, and most of them are commercial ventures though not all of them will go to the ISS.  One of the vehicles expected to start this year is XCOR’s Lynx.  The Lynx is a two passenger suborbital vehicle that will take humans and payloads on a half-hour flight and then return to the takeoff runway.  The Lynx can take off and return to Earth up to four times a day, and at ~$95,000 per seat it is relatively cost effective.  It can reach a suborbital alttude up to 100 km (330,000 feet).

Virgin Galactic’s has plans for its own two passenger suborbital spaceflight vehicle, known as SpaceShip Two.  While the Lynx uses its own rocket propulsion system to get to and from space, SpaceShip Two will be carried by a mothership known as WhiteKnightTwo.  At a cost of $200,000 for a seat, Shapeship Two will reach altitudes of about 100km (330,000 feet).  Virgin Galactic expects to begin commercial operations in 2013 or 2014.

Dream Chaser is Sierra Nevada Corporation’s suborbital spacecraft.  It will carry seven astronauts to and from low-Earth orbit, and will launch vertically atop a rocket but land on a runway like an airplane. Dream Chaser’s primary mission will be to dock with the International Space Station and carry both crew and cargo safely into space and back to Earth.  This space plane is expected be ready to begin operations as early as 2016.

Stratolaunch Systems is working on an air launch system to launch rockets into space from a carrier plane that would be the biggest aircraft in history.  The carrier craft will have a wingspan of 385 feet (117 meters), and initially plans to send cargo and satellites into space.  Test flights are planned to start in 2015, with real launches in 2016.  Eventually, they hope to launch astronauts into space as well.

Bigelow Aerospace has a unique outlook on the future of space flight, and is working to design and build private expandable space stations using their inflatable technology.  In 2006 and 2007, Bigelow launched orbiting prototypes Genesis I and Genesis II and will eventually launch a module to expand the capabilities of the ISS.  They already have partnerships with Boeing and SpaceX to transport passengers and from Bigelow’s “space hotels.”   Of course the term space hotel is only a loose label that got applied since Bigelow’s founder is also in the apartment business.  Planned clientele is actually slated to include governmental and corporate entities interested in building an astronaut program or performing microgravity research.

Blue Origin is developing both suborbital (New Shepard) and orbital space craft (The Space Vehicle), and expects to contract with NASA to transport astronauts to and from the ISS.  These vehicles plan use reusable booster rockets, first perfecting them with their suborbital program and then moving on further into their orbital space program.  The Space Vehicle should be ready to begin commercial operations between 2016 and 2018.

Bigger and more established companies such as Boeing are keeping their foot in the door as well.  The CST-100 will carry up to 7 passengers  to and from the ISS and low Earth orbit.   Each capsule is designed to make up to 10 space flights, and operations are expected to begin in 2016.

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