Twitter can be a surprisingly great resource for good information, you just need to know where to look. The social media platform has been instrumental in providing live coverage of and reaction to some of the most monumental moments happening today under designated hashtags (the latest episode of The Walking Dead doesn't count). One such beacon of information is #spacetwitter. If you’re not familiar with #spacetwitter, you may have still caught wind of a lot of rocket launches lately, thanks to the very publicized involvement of billonaires like Richard Branson and Elon Musk in the quest to exploring space. Some of these launches have been crewed, some not. Some are going into orbit, some just coming right back down. With all these separate entities at play, it can get a little confusing trying to keep track. Here’s a breakdown of who is getting off the planet these days and why.
National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)
NASA has been launching rockets since the 1950s, when it was only NACA (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics). While the Space Shuttle Program is no more, NASA still needs a way to launch astronauts and cargo to the International Space Station (ISS). That’s where Russia comes in, or more specifically the Roscosmos State Corporation for Space Activities (aka the Russian Federal Space Agency). Russia’s Soyuz Program is currently the only way to get astronauts to and from the ISS. Soyuz actually refers to both the crew capsule that docks with the station (and returns to Earth) as well as the rocket that launches it. Soyuz missions consist of three crew and are launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.
The most recent Soyuz launch was on Oct. 19, 2016, when NASA astronaut Shane Kimbrough and Russian cosmonauts Sergey Ryzhikov and Andrey Borisenko left the planet for their stay in space as half of Expedition 50. Three additional crew members, NASA astronauts Thomas Pesquet, Peggy Whitson and Russian cosmonaut Oleg Novitskiy, will join them shortly on Nov. 17, 2016, when the next Soyuz launch is scheduled.
While crew members travel to and from the station exclusively via the Soyuz, NASA has been utilizing private industry for many of the cargo missions. Currently two companies, Orbital ATK and SpaceX, have contracts to resupply the ISS as part of NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program.
Orbital ATK (Full disclosure: I worked for Orbital from 1998 to 2003).
Orbital ATK (formerly Orbital Science Corporation) is a private aerospace company headquartered in Dulles, Virginia. Orbital’s Antares rocket is an expendable launch system designed to deliver their Cygnus spacecraft autonomously to the ISS. The Cygnus can also be launched atop United Space Alliance’s Atlas V rocket. To date, five of Orbital’s seven resupply missions have been Antares launches.
Notably, the fourth mission had a catastrophic failure just after launch resulting in a complete loss of both the rocket and the payload. Orbital recently redeemed itself last month with the successful launch of the CRS OA-5 mission the upgraded Antares on Oct. 17, 2016, from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on the eastern shore of southern Virginia.
SpaceX (technically Space Exploration Technologies Corporation) is Elon Musk’s innovative brainchild after Paypal and Tesla. Like Orbital, SpaceX has a contract with NASA to send supplies to ISS, but unlike Orbital, SpaceX has its sights set higher than low-Earth orbit.
SpaceX has developed two launch vehicles, the Falcon 1 and the Falcon 9, both designed to be reusable, as well as a reusable space capsule, Dragon. SpaceX has accomplished a series of amazing firsts in spaceflight by a private company: first liquid-fueled rocket to reach orbit, first successful launch and recovery of a spacecraft, and first to send a spacecraft to ISS. As if that’s not enough, SpaceX is also the first company ever (private or otherwise) to launch and land a first stage (capable of orbit) successfully and then to do it again, but this time land on a floating drone ship. The latter was an especially impressive feat given SpaceX live-streamed all of its previous attempts which were explosive at times.
And speaking of explosions, SpaceX’s next launch attempt is uncertain as its Falcon 9 rocket burst into flames on the launch pad on Sept. 1, 2016, prior to a static fire test. While the full results of the ensuing failure investigation haven’t been released yet, Musk has hinted that it was related to the rocket fueling process and not the rocket design itself.
Elon Musk isn’t the only billionaire with space dreams: both Jeff Bezos of Amazon.com and Richard Branson of Virgin also head up their own aerospace companies, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic, respectively.
Jeff Bezos founded Blue Origin almost sixteen years ago. Based outside of Seattle, Washington, the company’s launch facilities are in West Texas. Unlike SpaceX, Blue Origin is notoriously secretive so the only glimpses into its progress have come when Bezos has done interviews or chosen to broadcast a test or a launch.
Blue Origin’s stated goal is to lower the cost of human space flight while simultaneously lowering the risk. Their New Shepard flight system consists of a rocket booster and crew capsule. They’ve completed five flight tests of the booster in less than a year and a half, culminating last month in the successful test the crew capsule escape system and the surprising safe return and landing of the booster rocket (which was a secondary goal, but not expected).
Bezos claims that Blue Origin is on track to launch test astronauts before the end of 2017 and actual paid passengers sometime in 2018. Start saving.
Last but not least, is Richard Branson’s most ambitious expansion of the Virgin brand, Virgin Galactic. Instead of developing their vehicles in-house, Virgin contracted with Scaled Composites and Burt Ratan to build both the spacecraft and the carrier vehicle. Unlike, the companies already mentioned, Virgin’s goal is suborbital. The passenger vehicle, SpaceShipTwo, is carried aloft via the captive-carry method, i.e., under the belly of a larger aircraft known as White Knight Two. The SpaceShipTwo design is based on the Ansari X-Prize winning design of SpaceShipOne by Ratan himself.
Virgin’s “spaceport” is based in New Mexico where it has built a 12,000 foot runway. While not technically a rocket launch, Virgin has also been lifting off lately. On September 9, 2016, VSS Unity (the name given to the second SpaceShipTwo model built) flew a captive-carry test flight mated to White Knight Two up to an altitude of 50,000 feet. Another difference between Virgin and the other companies, is Virgin’s flights are piloted. In fact, they even maintain a small pilot corps.
Also, unlike the other companies, Virgin is already taking reservations despite an earlier estimate of flights by 2009 made by Branson in 2008 and more recently, a canceled test flight in which VSS Unity would have been released from the mothership in flight to glide back to Earth.
I should add, space is no longer dominated by the U.S. and Russia. On Oct. 17, 2016, China launched their sixth crewed mission (Shenzhou 11) to their second space station in low-Earth orbit (Tiangong-2). The two astronauts will stay in orbit for close to a month. India also has a thriving space program. Currently focused more on satellites than human spaceflight, the stated goal of the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) is to “harness space technology for national development, while pursuing space science research and planetary exploration.” India recently set a record by launching 20 satellites in a single payload on June 18, 2016, from one of its launch facilities located on Sriharikota, a barrier island off the east coast.
If your reaction to all this is “I need more space!”, you can stay up to date with all scheduled launch activities worldwide here.