July 2011 was the last time that astronauts launched from American soil, on board Atlantis on the final flight of the Space Shuttle program. Now, NASA has revealed that by June next year, manned American launches will begin again.
In a brief blog post, they announced new target launch dates for two upcoming private spacecraft. These are the SpaceX Crew Dragon (or Dragon 2) and the Boeing CST-100 Starliner. They will launch atop a Falcon 9 and Atlas V rocket respectively from Cape Canaveral in Florida.
SpaceX are hoping to complete an unmanned flight of the capsule in February 2018, with a manned flight in June 2018. Boeing is targeting a June 2018 test, and the first crewed flight in August 2018.
These spacecraft are being developed as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. On these initial launches, each vehicle will be capable of taking four people to space, with the International Space Station (ISS) the ultimate target.
Eventually, however, each may be able to take up to seven people into orbit. Destinations include not just the ISS, but perhaps private space stations and possibly the Moon one day.
“NASA’s Commercial Crew Program will return human spaceflight launches to US soil, providing reliable and cost-effective access to low-Earth orbit on systems that meet our safety and mission requirements,” NASA wrote.
They noted that the unmanned tests were a necessity before NASA would let them launch people. Currently, there are a number of astronauts in training that are scheduled to fly on these vehicles.
Once the capsules are proven, NASA will then add them to the ISS fleet, working with Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft to rotate crews to and from the ISS. Russia for its part recently reduced the number of people its Soyuz would take from three to two.
This means that with one of these private spacecraft, the total number of people on the ISS at any one time will be six. If Russia increases the number again, then that could obviously go up to seven.
Starliner and Crew Dragon were originally scheduled to fly by the end of 2017, but technical issues have forced them to be delayed. In the ISS R&D conference last week, Musk said it had been “way more difficult” to get Crew Dragon working than the cargo version of Dragon.
“As soon as people enter the picture, it’s really a giant step up in making sure things go right,” he said, reported SpaceNews. “The oversight from NASA is much tougher.”
Things seem to be ticking along quite nicely though. If all goes to plan, by this time next year astronauts will have launched from US soil for the first time in seven years.