The State of Commercial Space Travel in 2019

Boeing Starliner space capsule

Boeing

For some adventurous travelers the ultimate trip doesn't involve hiking in the Himalaya, traversing the Amazon, or visiting the South Pole. In fact, some of us have quite literally set our sights much, much higher. The dream of commercial space travel has been an enticing one for some time, and while it has inched closer to reality in recent years, it still seems as if it is always just out of reach. But 2019 just might be the year that space tourism finally starts to take off, with at least one company promising to take travelers into the stratosphere at long last.

Others aren't fare behind however, with even bigger ambitions on the horizon.

After facing some serious setbacks in recent years, it now looks like Virgin Galactic is set to finally begin commercial service in 2019 or early 2020. In February of this year, the company took its newly redesigned and safer SpaceShipTwo aircraft to the edge of space for the first time, and now that same vehicle is being outfitted with passenger seats and other amenities to support the first space tourists.

The company expects to make several more test flights with the cabin fully outfitted prior to beginning actual service. If those flights go as expected, and there are no further unexpected delays, Virgin founder Richard Branson says that he expects to begin making the first commercial flights in the second half of 2019. The flamboyant billionaire even expects to be on the first flight, which will be conducted from Spaceport America located in New Mexico.

Perhaps the most high profile commercial space program amongst the general public is SpaceX. Founded by Elon Musk in 2002, the company has practically become a household name thanks to its frequent resupply missions to the International Space Station and for delivering satellites into orbit. Musk's privately owned space program has yet to ferry any passengers into orbit however, although that hasn't stopped him from announcing plans to go well beyond even that point.

Key to Musk's plans of sending tourists into space is the development of the Dragon capsule. The vehicle can hold thousands of pounds of cargo and has room for seven passengers, and is scheduled to start ferrying astronauts to the ISS this year. Unfortunately, an accident during a key test caused the Dragon to explode, setting back those plans for the time being. NASA and SpaceX are still investigating exactly what happened, but are confident that the spacecraft will be ready to go. So much so that a crew has already been chosen to make the first flight.

Once the Dragon is up and operational, Musk hopes to begin taking reservations for civilians to fly aboard his capsule as well. Those flights aren't expected to begin until 2020 at the earliest and prices have yet to be announced. Considering the fact that the Dragon is actually able to achieve orbit around the Earth, expect it to be significantly higher than the $250,000 that Virgin Galactic is charging.

Confident that the Dragon will perform well, Musk has already begun making plans for taking passengers all the way to the moon. He expects that SpaceX will send its first tourist to Earth's satellite by 2023, although whether or not that will actually happen remains to be seen. The company's outspoken founder has made bold claims before, only to see delays push back his planned schedule by months and even years.

That said however, SpaceX seems to be the only commercial space program that is remotely close to taking passengers into actual space. The company has been developing the Dragon capsule for years and has even test fired its BFR rocket as it takes baby steps towards manned spaceflight. It may still be a couple of years off from launching the first civilian travelers into orbit, but it seems on track to reach those goals ahead of competitors.

SpaceX's closet rival comes in the form of Blue Origin, which was founded Jeff Bezos of Amazon fame. The company also has designs of eventually taking travelers into space, and it is making significant strides in that direction. In January of 2019, Blue Origin's New Shepard rocket made its tenth unmanned test flight, which has put it on course for its first crewed flight later in the year. This rocket is designed to take passengers on a suborbital adventure, and like SpaceX's rockets it is reusable, saving significantly on costs.

If Blue Origin stays on course, it expects to unveil its New Glenn rocket in 2021. That propulsion system should be able to take cargo and humans into orbit and possibly beyond. It will take several years of testing and review before hat happens however, so it seems like Bezos and his team will have to wait a bit longer before they can feel what it is like to be weightless.

Not to be outdone by these upstart newcomers, Boeing continues to prepare its Starliner for both private and commercial enterprises. Like the SpaceX Dragon capsule, the Starliner can haul cargo and a crew of seven into orbit, with an eye on keeping the ISS fully crewed and supplied. But, the same spacecraft can be used for commercial passengers as well.

The first test flight of the Starliner is now set to take place in late 2019, with a mission to the International Space Station to follow sometime in 2020. That means that using the capsule for commercial ventures is still probably several years away. When it does finally begin to accommodate tourists however, Boeing hopes to play a significant role in commercial spaceflight just as it has in commercial air travel.

Of course, there are a handful of other companies who are pursuing various methods for taking tourists into space, but most appear to be years behind the leaders. Considering the complexity that comes with safely and economically launching humans into space, it seems that most of the other commercial space programs are struggling to play catch-up at the moment. While we wouldn't discount the chances of another challenger emerging from the pack, virtually no one else is even close to an unmanned launch at this point, let alone ready to take passengers.

For now, it seems that true commercial spaceflight remains elusive, although we are getting closer to it becoming a reality. There are still some hurdles to overcome to ensure it is a safe way to travel, but the well-heeled and adventurous person may soon be setting off for orbit.

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