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American spaceflight history: End of shuttle program paves way for private companies to lead in space

SpaceX, Boeing work toward launch of NASA astronauts

NASA astronaut Robert Behnken is preparing to launch to the International Space Station from Kennedy Space Center on May 27, marking the first time astronauts will launch from U.S. soil in nine years.
NASA astronaut Robert Behnken is preparing to launch to the International Space Station from Kennedy Space Center on May 27, marking the first time astronauts will launch from U.S. soil in nine years. (NASA)

After the longest gap in American spaceflight history, NASA will again launch its astronauts from the U.S. starting this spring. The first SpaceX launch with astronauts on board has been a long time coming but to understand the importance of the upcoming historic launch, you need to look at how far human spaceflight has progressed since the first space explorer.

Leading up to the May 27 launch of NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken, we’re taking a look back at milestones in U.S. human spaceflight that paved the way for future astronauts. Previous stories in this series highlighted the Mercury and Gemini projects, the historic Apollo Project and the Space Shuttle Program.

At this point in the series, the final space shuttle mission marked the end of an era in American spaceflight as no astronauts have launched from U.S. soil since then.

The groundwork leading up to the end of the shuttle program made a path for private space companies, including SpaceX, Lockheed Martin, Boeing and Blue Origin, to step up and dominate the industry. Multi-billion dollar contracts from NASA also fueled the growth in space startups, along with the need for access to low-Earth orbit.

To bridge the gap while SpaceX and Boeing built and tested spacecraft to fly NASA astronauts, the U.S. purchased seats on Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft to continue sending U.S. astronauts to the space station.

Even without its own ride, for the past nine years American astronauts have continued to make history in space. Read on to learn about some crucial moments leading up to this year’s return to human spaceflight.


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2006- Present: Orion spacecraft development

NASA's Space Launch System rocket will launch with Orion atop it from Launch Complex 39B at NASA's modernized spaceport at Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
NASA's Space Launch System rocket will launch with Orion atop it from Launch Complex 39B at NASA's modernized spaceport at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. (NASA)

A product of the Constellation program, NASA’s Orion spacecraft has been in development since the shuttle program. The capsule is designed to carry astronauts back to the moon under the Artemis Program.

Orion is designed to launch on NASA’s Space Launch System, or SLS rocket, also still in development.

Several test versions of Orion have launched from Florida’s Space Coast, as early as 2006 and most recently as July 2019 when NASA successfully tested Orion’s launch abort system.

The most recent estimates of when Orion and SLS will launch on the first mission known as Artemis-1 puts launch no earlier than late 2021.

September 2014: NASA taps SpaceX and Boeing to develop astronaut rides

NASA selected SpaceX and Boeing to develop spacecraft to carry U.S. astronauts and their international partners to and from the International Space Station, awarding the companies a combined $6.8 billion: SpaceX $2.6 billion and Boeing $4.2 billion. The public-private partnership is known as the Commercial Crew Program.

SpaceX’s capsule is based on the design for its Dragon spacecraft used to launch supplies to and from the ISS. The version that will carry astronauts is known as Crew Dragon and will launch on SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket.

Boeing began building its astronaut capsule known as the CST-100 Starliner from scratch, according to the company. The spacecraft will launch on United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V rocket.

The U.S. space agency originally slated the first launches as part of the program to happen in 2017 but three years later both companies have experienced set backs leading to delays.

[MORE SPACE COVERAGE: Meet the astronauts who will make history in first human spaceflight from US since 2011]

March 2015-March 2016: Longest duration human spaceflight

Identical twins, Scott and Mark Kelly, were the subjects of NASA's Twins Study. Scott (left) spent a year in space while Mark (right) stayed on Earth as a control subject. Researchers are looking at the effects of space travel on the human body.
Identical twins, Scott and Mark Kelly, were the subjects of NASA's Twins Study. Scott (left) spent a year in space while Mark (right) stayed on Earth as a control subject. Researchers are looking at the effects of space travel on the human body. (NASA)

While NASA astronaut Scott Kelly was in space for almost a year, his twin, also an astronaut, Mark Kelly remained on Earth, allowing their genetics and bodily reactions to be studied for impacts of long-duration spaceflight. The research from the brothers led to scientific discoveries about what happens to the human body during long stays in low gravity.

Scott Kelly holds the American record for most time in space: 520 days.

August 2018: NASA assigns crew to commercial spacecraft

On Aug. 3, 2018 NASA Adminitrator Jim Bridenstine announced at the Johnson Space Center the nine astroanuts who will launch on SpaceX and Boeing commercial crew spacecraft next year. (Photo: Emilee Speck/WKMG)
On Aug. 3, 2018 NASA Adminitrator Jim Bridenstine announced at the Johnson Space Center the nine astroanuts who will launch on SpaceX and Boeing commercial crew spacecraft next year. (Photo: Emilee Speck/WKMG)

On Aug. 3, 2018, NASA introduced the nine astronauts who would be the first to launch on either the Starliner or Crew Dragon spacecraft. That group has now been expanded to add two, another NASA astronaut and a Japanese astronaut with JAXA.

The astronauts were paired with a spacecraft and with a test flight or first mission to the International Space Station.

Boeing’s test pilot, a former NASA astronaut, Chris Ferguson, will also be onboard the first Starliner flight with crew.

Of the 11 astronauts who will start a new chapter of American space history, three have never been to space before. Those three -- Victor Glover, Nicole Mann and Josh Cassada -- are also from the first class of NASA astronauts comprised of equal parts women and men. It was a first in NASA history in 2013 and has been the standard since.

After Demo-2, the first launch of Crew Dragon with astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken, the next flight will include four astronauts: three NASA crew and one Japanese astronaut.

December 2018: Virgin Galactic spaceflight

Virgin Galactic released this image taken during Space Ship Unity's first flight to the boundary of space on Dec. 13, 2018.
Virgin Galactic released this image taken during Space Ship Unity's first flight to the boundary of space on Dec. 13, 2018. (Virgin Galactic)

Two test pilots successfully took Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo into the edges of space carrying several low-gravity experiments, including those from two Florida universities.

The flight marked the first time humans reached space in a private spaceplane.

Virgin Galactic plans to carry paying customers to the edge of space and back.

March 2019: First private astronaut capsule docks at space station

This photo provided by SpaceX shows a life-size test dummy along with a toy that is floating in the Dragon capsule as the capsule made orbit on Saturday, March 2, 2019. America's newest capsule for astronauts rocketed toward the International Space Station on a high-stakes test flight by SpaceX. This latest, flashiest Dragon is on a fast track to reach the space station Sunday morning, just 27 hours after liftoff. (SpaceX via AP)
This photo provided by SpaceX shows a life-size test dummy along with a toy that is floating in the Dragon capsule as the capsule made orbit on Saturday, March 2, 2019. America's newest capsule for astronauts rocketed toward the International Space Station on a high-stakes test flight by SpaceX. This latest, flashiest Dragon is on a fast track to reach the space station Sunday morning, just 27 hours after liftoff. (SpaceX via AP)

SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule launched from Kennedy Space Center on March 2, 2019 to the International Space Station, successfully docked and then came back to Earth splashing down in the Atlantic Ocean.

For its first journey to the International Space Station, the commercial spacecraft, Crew Dragon, carried no crew. However, a sensor-laden, spacesuit-wearing mannequin named Ripley onboard helped NASA learn what their astronauts will experience when the spacecraft is officially ready for live passengers.

The uncrewed test was critical to certifying the spacecraft to carry people.

December 2019: Boeing Starliner test flight

The Boeing CST-100 Starliner spacecraft near the U.S. Army’s White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. (Image: Boeing/NASA)
The Boeing CST-100 Starliner spacecraft near the U.S. Army’s White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. (Image: Boeing/NASA) (WKMG 2019)

Boeing’s astronaut capsule launched on its first orbital flight in December 2019. The Starliner spacecraft was set to launch, dock at the space station and return to Earth as part of a critical test before astronauts could fly on board. However, a few minutes into launch, a timing error caused Starliner to miss its orbital insertion burn and it was unable to rendezvous with the space station.

The spacecraft returned to Earth 48 hours after launch, landing in New Mexico.

Boeing will try the orbital flight test again before Starliner launches with astronauts but has not said when that will happen.

October 2019: First all female spacewalk

NASA astronauts Jessica Meir and Christina Koch prepare on the International Space Station for the first all-female spacewalk, scheduled for Oct. 18, 2019. (NASA)
NASA astronauts Jessica Meir and Christina Koch prepare on the International Space Station for the first all-female spacewalk, scheduled for Oct. 18, 2019. (NASA)

NASA astronauts Christina Kock and Jessica Meir made history when they suited up and stepped outside the International Space Station, completing the first all-female spacewalk.

The moment was decades in the making and inspired larger interest in the challenges female astronauts face using space suits designed for larger male bodies and that NASA is in need of new spacesuits for its astronauts.

January 19, 2020: SpaceX in-flight abort test

A SpaceX Falcon 9 blasts off from Kennedy Space Center launchpad 29A on Jan. 19, 2020. The launch was part of an in-flight abort test for the company's astronaut capsule, Crew Dragon.
A SpaceX Falcon 9 blasts off from Kennedy Space Center launchpad 29A on Jan. 19, 2020. The launch was part of an in-flight abort test for the company's astronaut capsule, Crew Dragon. (WKMG 2020)

In January, SpaceX launched a Falcon 9 with a Crew Dragon on top and then initially triggered a problem with the rocket to test the launch abort system. The Crew Dragon spacecraft jettisoned away to safety, splashing down in the Atlantic and Falcon 9 was destroyed moments later.

The point of purposely destroying a rocket was to make sure should anything go wrong with astronauts on board, the system designed to save them would work. The test was a spectacular sight to be sure but it was also a success and an important milestone for SpaceX and the astronauts planning to fly on Crew Dragon.

Jan. 27, 2020: First private space station agreement with NASA

The Axiom modules are targeted to attach to the International Space Station beginning in the latter half of 2024.
The Axiom modules are targeted to attach to the International Space Station beginning in the latter half of 2024. ()

NASA announced in January Axiom Space, a private company based in Houston, will build the first stages of a private space station that will operate long after the International Space Station is retired.

NASA awarded access to the International Space Station’s Node 2 Forward port to begin building its commercial space station that could ultimately replace the ISS.

The first module will launch in the second half of 2024, according to Axiom.

February 2020: Longest female spaceflight record

In this June 2019 photo made available by NASA, astronaut Christina Koch poses for a portrait inside of the vestibule between a SpaceX Dragon cargo craft and the Harmony module of the International Space Station. (NASA via AP)
In this June 2019 photo made available by NASA, astronaut Christina Koch poses for a portrait inside of the vestibule between a SpaceX Dragon cargo craft and the Harmony module of the International Space Station. (NASA via AP)

In February NASA astronaut Christina Koch returned from the ISS after setting a record for the longest duration spaceflight for a woman. Koch spent 11 months on board the space station.

Present: Preparing for the return to space

The SpaceX Crew Dragon
The SpaceX Crew Dragon (NASA)

As soon as May 27, NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken will make a triumphant return, launching from Florida’s Coast once again. If all goes well, NASA astronauts will have a new ride to the space station.

What’s next?

Renderings of the three spacecraft selected by NASA to return humans to the moon by 2024. (Image: NASA)
Renderings of the three spacecraft selected by NASA to return humans to the moon by 2024. (Image: NASA) (WKMG 2020)

If Hurley and Behnken have a successful test flight to the ISS and back, SpaceX and NASA will next prepare to launch four astronauts on a six-month mission to the space station on Crew Dragon. NASA astronauts Michael Hopkins, Victor Glover and Shannon Walker will be joined by Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) astronaut Soichi Noguchi on that launch, which could happen later in 2020.

NASA has also been negotiating with Russia to purchase another seat on Soyuz for this year in case there is a gap between commercial launches.

Boeing still needs to re-do its orbital flight test for Starliner before flying astronauts. A date has not been set for that test flight.

Most recently, NASA announced it had selected private companies to develop human moon landers to send astronauts back to the moon under the Artemis program. SpaceX’s Starship, Blue Origin’s moon lander and Dynetics’ spacecraft were chosen by NASA to return humans to the moon.


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