A revolution in a sentence – the future of human spaceflight in America

“This year, American astronauts will go back to space in American rockets.”

This one sentence from the 2019 State of the Union address may have escaped your notice. It ended a paragraph in which the president paid tribute to astronaut Buzz Aldrin of the Apollo 11 mission to mark the the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing. From that point, the speech transitioned to increasing the standard of living for Americans in the 21st century. A small sentence, perhaps. Maybe perceived by some as a throwaway line. But behind these 12 words lies a revolution in how Americans will get to space in the future.

Americans have not flown to orbit aboard an American rocket or from an American launch pad since July 8, 2011. This gap of nearly eight years and counting is the longest in our history, eclipsing the six-year gap between Apollo-Soyuz in 1975 and the Space Shuttle program in 1981. Since the retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2011, the United States has paid Russia approximately US$75 million per seat to launch U.S. astronauts to the International Space Station aboard Soyuz spacecraft from a launch site in Kazakhstan.

However, as noted in the State of the Union, things will change in 2019. American astronauts are scheduled to fly to space from U.S. soil this summer, aboard three separate launch systems, developed not by the U.S. government and its contractor workforce, but instead by commercial spaceflight companies. It is a change that heralds a new era in manned space travel.

A new era of American spaceflight

SpaceX, Boeing and Virgin Galactic are all planning to send American astronauts into space in 2019. For SpaceX and Boeing – if the schedule holds and near-term test flights go well – their voyages will be orbital flights to the ISS launched from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. SpaceX will fly two NASA astronauts in their Dragon Capsule on a Falcon 9 rocket, and Boeing will fly a crew of three in its CST-100 Starliner aboard an Atlas-V booster.

Virgin Galactic has already put Americans into space with their most recent flight in December 2018. Although this rocket did not orbit the Earth, and did just a quick “up and down” trajectory, it demonstrates amazing progress.

Most revolutions do not happen overnight, and our revolution in commercial human spaceflight is no exception. All of this activity can be traced back to the George W. Bush 43 administration, when NASA Administrator Dr. Michael D. Griffin put $500 million of NASA money on the table to help spur industry to develop commercial systems from which NASA could purchase delivery services, for crew and cargo, just as one buys airline tickets.