In 2019, the United States plans to once again launch homegrown crewed spacecraft. NASA’s commercial partners, Boeing and SpaceX are scheduled to launch both uncrewed and crewed test flights of their respective spacecraft before the end of the year.
On July 2011, NASA launched the Space Shuttle Atlantis from the Kennedy Space Centre for STS-135, the final mission of the shuttle program. It would be the last time any crewed vehicle would be launched from the United States. Over the last eight years, various NASA-lead manned programs have been pursued including Constellation and the Space Launch System (SLS). However, their efforts have not yet resulted in a single crewed flight.
In an effort to reduce the pressure on the state to develop crewed spacecraft, the first Commercial Crew Development (CCD) phase was introduced under the Obama presidency in 2010. This first phase awarded a combined $50 million to Blue Origin, Boeing, Paragon Space Development Corporation, Sierra Nevada Corporation and United Launch Alliance. That same year, the second phase of the CCD funding awarded $270 million to Blue Origin, Sierra Nevada Corporation, SpaceX and Boeing.
Spacecraft designs from the companies selected in phase 2 were then extensively evaluated. In late 2012, NASA selected just three companies to pursue end to end development of a crewed spacecraft. This most recent phase of the CCD program granted a combined $1 billion in funding to Sierra Nevada Corporation, SpaceX and Boeing. All three companies are expected to launch vehicles this year with Sierra Nevada Corporation’s Dream Chaser selected for ISS cargo missions only.
SpaceX is currently scheduled to launch the first CCD mission later this month. The company will launch an uncrewed Crew Dragon 2 aboard a Falcon 9 rocket. Following the launch, data from the mission will be analysed by NASA officials before the spacecraft is approved for crewed missions. Should all go according to plan, SpaceX will launch the first crewed mission from US soil in almost a decade in June.
Although behind SpaceX, Boeing is also expected to launch both an uncrewed and a crewed mission in 2019. The company’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft will launch aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V without a crew in March this year. Following a successful uncrewed test, the first crewed Starliner will likely launch in August.
As the launch of the Crew Dragon 2 and Starliner spacecraft approaches, anticipation from the general public and within the industry has grown. “I think there’s a growing excitement that every day we are getting closer and closer to launch,” said Kathy Lueders, manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. Despite the excitement, Lueders cautioned that no crew would launch aboard the spacecraft until NASA was confident they could do so safely. “The progress has been tremendous, but we still have a lot of work to do. There’s something I repeat constantly, ‘We will fly when we are ready.’”