Since the space shuttle program ended, NASA and several other private companies have been hard at work developing the next generation of spacecraft. While some are designed for nothing more than suborbital tourism, others will take us into deep space and even land us on Mars. It’s an exciting time for the space industry, and several options exist that will take us to infinity and beyond.
It’s a Tough World Out There
Space might be the most unforgiving environment we know. Spacecraft have to endure various extremes when venturing into the great beyond. Let’s take a brief look at what they’re up against:
- Vibrations on launch — When a spacecraft launches, it shudders violently as the powerful engines push it into space. This can easily break fragile equipment. That’s why models are built to test the structural and thermal capabilities of the spacecraft.
- Temperature — In space, it can be either hundreds below freezing or several hundred degrees above freezing, especially if the spacecraft is lit by the sun. Energy travels in space by radiation, mostly from the sun, which can damage spacecraft.
- Meteor showers — The outer skin of the spacecraft must be strong enough to prevent dents from meteors. Even though they look pretty from Earth, they travel several kilometers per second and can cripple any moving object in space.
When building high-tech rockets for deep space travel, engineers have to be absolutely precise in their methods. Every part of a rocket must endure the above conditions. For example, engineers use the cold-forming process to make parts. It increases the hardness and strength of a wide variety of metals. It’s also extremely accurate, with surface finishes of 3-6 micro-inches obtainable.
Now that we’ve covered the conditions, let’s meet the contenders.
Summary: An interstellar manned capsule funded by NASA and Congress. Built to explore deep space, asteroids and possibly Mars. Progress is looking questionable. Launching: As early as 2021.
While NASA is at a high point for innovating the next frontier of space vehicles, they’re still struggling. Trips to low earth orbit are being outsourced, and insufficient funding has plagued the organization for a while now.
But NASA still keeps its head turned up to the stars, and deep space and planetary exploration await. In order to get that far, NASA has designed the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle. A manned capsule attaches to a living module, which also propels the spacecraft.
NASA ran a complete test of Orion on December 5, 2014. Blasting off from Cape Canaveral on a Delta IV Heavy rocket, Orion completed two orbits in four hours. During this flight test, many systems were examined to ensure maximum safety.
Coming up hopefully soon will be an Orion launch using the Space Launch System. The SLS will be the most powerful rocket built to date, and will carry Orion into deep space.
Of course, the biggest blow to this mission is launch costs. NASA will have to fork over $6 billion every time it launches SLS. This has led to many skeptics disapproving of the program, calling it “too ambitious.”
Summary: A manned capsule designed and funded by Elon Musk’s SpaceX. Built for orbiting the earth and docking with the International Space Station. Progress is looking great. Launching: 2018-2019.
Dragon has already made headlines. It was the first-ever commercial spacecraft to dock with the ISS. It delivered cargo and took cargo back to Earth. At this point, it’s safe to assume that Dragon could be some sort of space freighter. If you have the opportunity to see a launch at Cape Canaveral, take it – it’s awe inspiring to say the least.
From the project’s inception, however, Dragon was meant to carry humans. That’s what it will do a few years down the line — a manned test flight is in the works for about two or three years from now.
Summary: A reusable manned capsule funded by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and his company, Blue Origin. Built for purposes unknown for now, but their website strongly hints at space tourism. Progress is going steady. Launching: Unknown.
Jeff Bezos has done a fantastic job of keeping his space project under wraps for about a decade now. What has been released to the public is footage of their capsule, New Shepard, conducting test flights.
The fourth consecutive launch occurred this past June, which tested risk assessment for a failed parachute scenario. The capsule intentionally crash-landed, but did so at a safe velocity thanks to reverse thrusting. In addition to this test, several experiments have been conducted concerning fluid dynamics and dust particles.
Subsequent launches demonstrated that the capsule could reach its target height, then land safely back on Earth.
Summary: A space plane funded by Virgin Galactic. Built for suborbital space tourism. Progress is looking very good. Launching: Unknown. Next version is currently in the works.
Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipOne soared onto news networks in 2004 when it won the Ansari X Prize, a contest that promoted the first space tourism venture.
The upgraded SpaceShipTwo can carry up to six passengers and two pilots. The trip to space occurs in two parts: first, the mothership, WhiteKnightTwo, will carry the craft to 50,000 feet. Then, SpaceShipTwo will detach and use rocket engines to soar into sub-orbit, some 68 miles up.
You might have heard that the $250,000 tickets have already been sold to some well-known celebrities, including Justin Bieber and Leonardo DiCaprio.
Summary: A self-launched space plane designed and funded by XCOR Aerospace. Built for suborbital space tourism and experiments. Progress is looking good. Launching: 2017.
XCOR Aerospace pride themselves on the fact that they might offer the cheapest way up to space. $95,000 will save you a seat on the 30-foot Lynx space plane. Instead of taking the backseat as a passenger, XCOR wants to stick you right alongside the pilot in the cockpit for an “authentic astronaut experience.”
The way it will get up there is simple: take off like a normal plane, but use four kerosene/liquid-oxygen rocket engines to rapidly ascend at Mach 2.9.
Don’t worry if you haven’t reserved your seat yet — the creators say that the plane will be able to fly four times in a day.
Which design do you think is the best? Which do you think will be in full operation first? Let us know in the comments. And while you’re at it, let Congress know NASA needs a bigger budget
While you consider your options, take a look back at these rockets of the world. This is an update of the original 1995 “Rockets of the World” chart by Peter Alway. Designed by artist Tyler Skrabek, the new chart includes rockets that have had to have flown at least three times (source: Popular Mechanics). (It doesn’t include the Falcon 9 Heavy and the SLS.) Skrabek provides a solid basis for comparison for the rockets, putting in an ice cream truck for scale.
Click the image to see a much larger, more legible version.