Elon Musk is prone to tweeting out artistic renderings of the rockets and spacecraft he intends to build, offering his followers a glimpse of the future he imagines for humanity on other planets. So when he recently posted a photo of a launchpad walkway leading out to his rocket and spacecraft, Musk felt compelled to clarify in a follow-up tweet.
“Sorry, to be clear, this pic is real,” he wrote. “Nothing rendered.”
Though the prospect of the return of human spaceflight from United States soil has at times seemed like a mirage, NASA’s astronauts could this year return to space from the Florida Space Coast for the first time since the space shuttle was retired more than seven years ago. If successful, it would punctuate a year that government and industry officials believe could mark a turning point in the United States space program, which could see all sorts of new milestones as NASA celebrates the 50th anniversary of the lunar landing.
Boeing is also working to develop a spacecraft it hopes would ferry NASA’s astronauts to the International Space Station by the end of 2019, meaning there would be not one but two American spacecraft capable of flying astronauts to orbit.
Virgin Galactic had a fatal accident in 2014. And Musk recently tweeted that the uncrewed first flight of the spacecraft designed to carry humans “will be extremely intense.”
Those caveats aside, here’s a look at some of what’s to come in 2019.
Commercial crew: In 2014, when NASA awarded Boeing and SpaceX contracts to fly its astronauts to the space station, then-NASA administrator Charles Bolden said it would set “the stage for what promises to be the most ambitious and exciting chapter in the history of NASA and human space flight.”
He vowed the first flights would take place by 2017, ending NASA’s reliance on Russia to fly its astronauts to space.
The program has suffered setbacks, including a lack of congressional funding. Now both Boeing and SpaceX are scheduled to fly test flights with humans this year, though many think there will be continued delays to the program, potentially pushing at least one of the human flights to next year.
Space tourism: Last month, Virgin Galactic hit a long elusive goal when two pilots flew its spaceplane to more than 50 miles high just barely passing what many consider the edge of space. The pilots, C.J. Sturckow, a former NASA astronaut who flew on the space shuttle four times, and Mark “Forger” Stucky, a former Air Force test pilot who flew the SR-71 Blackbird, are expected to receive astronaut wings at a ceremony in Washington from the Federal Aviation Administratio in the near future.
Richard Branson, Virgin’s founder, has said he hopes to fly in 2019 and then send ticket holders thereafter from Spaceport America, the futuristic facility it plans to operate out of in New Mexico.
Space Launch System/Orion: While the huge rocket that NASA is building is not scheduled to fly in 2019, the Orion spacecraft is expected to reach a key milestone: the test of its emergency abort system. After years of delays and cost overruns, NASA is hoping that the Space Launch System and Orion spacecraft could finally fly together by 2020.
Small launchers and satellites: The year 2019 could, however, go down as the year of the small-launch vehicle. While SpaceX and others are focused on building massive and powerful rockets, some companies have been developing much smaller launchers.
They are designed to meet the needs of a revolution in satellite technology that has shrunk down their size to that of a shoe box in some cases. Small satellites don’t need huge, expensive rockets, hence the boom of companies racing to build small launchers.
Rocket Lab, a company based in New Zealand and California, is leading the way. It launched three times last year, and CEO Peter Beck said in an email that “2019 will be even bigger.”