Want To Be An Astronaut? Your Chariots Await

7 vehicles that will carry humanity into orbit and beyond very soon

A May 2015 test of the Crew Dragon's launch abort system.

Pad Abort Test

A May 2015 test of the Crew Dragon's launch abort system.SpaceX

The human race is quickly becoming a spacefaring civilization. During the Cold War, aggression and technological rivalry between two superpowers led to humanity’s first journey into space and to those first footsteps on the Moon. Today, exploration is driven by competition in the commercial space industry.

Private companies like SpaceX, Boeing, and Sierra Nevada Corp are already signed up to carry cargo to the International Space Station. Later, they'll also build and fly their own human-capable spacecraft, while NASA itself focuses on building a vehicle that will eventually take humans to Mars.

While the commercial industry crowds the skies with a lineup of upcoming vehicles, the space tourism industry is not too far behind. Billionaire titans Jeff Bezos and Sir Richard Branson are quickly on their way to providing life-changing passenger flights to the edges of space. Even a smaller outfit, World View, is competing for a slice of what will become a lucrative industry. In a few years, it won’t be a question of IF you’ll ever become astronaut, but WHEN (and for what price). These are the vehicles that could take you there.

NASA's Orion Spacecraft

First Crewed Flight: 2021-2023

A mock-up of the Orion capsule
NASA is developing the 16-foot Orion spacecraft to carry humans to Mars. In space, it will dock with a larger module to provide living space for the 6- to 9-month journey. A mockup of the spacecraft is shown here.Sarah Fecht/Popular Science

NASA’s journey to Mars started becoming a reality in 2014 during the first flight test of the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle. Manufactured by Lockheed Martin for NASA, the Orion will propel humans beyond low Earth orbit for the first time since the last Apollo mission in 1972, and eventually help us traverse deep space to reach Mars.

Orion can transport up to four astronauts and keep them safe for about 21 days. But longer stays will require a habitat module -- which Lockheed Martin is already conceptualizing. The contractor has also recently released its own playbook on how humans can first orbit Mars before finally stepping foot on the ground.

Orion EM-1 capsule
When it's finished, this capsule will launch in 2018 and travel about 43,000 miles past the Moon, breaking the record for the furthest a human-rated vehicle has ever travelled. A crewed mission is expected to follow as early as 2021.NASA

In 2018, an unmanned Orion will be launched atop the most powerful rocket ever built, NASA’s Space Launch System, and travel about 43,000 miles past the Moon. While breaking the record for the furthest a human-rated vehicle has ever travelled, Orion will spend its 21-day mission pushing many of its systems to their limits.

It will also help NASA plan for a follow up mission, slated for 2021-2023, which will mark the first time humans have travelled beyond the International Space Station since its construction, and will be a major stepping stone for NASA’s journey to Mars.

"This will essentially be a dress rehearsal for that mission," said Lockheed Martin Orion Program Manager Mike Hawes, "to go and prove Orion systems and come home."

SpaceX's Crew Dragon

First Crewed Flight: 2017

With the retirement of the Space Shuttle, NASA has relied on Russia to send both cargo and crew to the International Space Station. That began to change in 2012, when SpaceX became the first private company to dock a spacecraft with the ISS.

SpaceX's Crew Dragon
The Crew DragonSpaceX

SpaceX has its sights set on the Red Planet, and it's using low Earth orbit as a proving ground for future human missions to Mars. The private spaceflight company is one of three that NASA selected to deliver cargo to the International Space Station, and beginning late next year, SpaceX is expected to return human spaceflight to American soil, becoming the first private company to carry astronauts to the ISS. The firm intends to accomplish this feat with the successor to its current Dragon resupply workhorse, the Dragon V2 or Crew Dragon.

The Crew Dragon is a fully autonomous spacecraft that can be piloted by one of its seven crew members or by SpaceX mission control in Hawthorne, California. The vehicle has a futuristic look and an interior design to match. In what SpaceX calls an “enjoyable ride,” the Crew Dragon has four relatively large windows so astronauts can enjoy views of the Earth, Moon and Solar System while they sit comfortably in seats made from high-grade carbon fiber and a luxurious suede-like cloth called Alcantara.

What really makes the Crew Dragon special is its launch abort system, which can jettison a crew to safety in the event of an explosive launch failure. Unlike previous abort systems, SpaceX has integrated theirs into the Dragon vehicle itself so the crew has escape capability during the entire ascent into orbit. Previous designs (like Orion) have depended on a rocket tower attached to the top of a spacecraft which would ignite and pull the crew capsule away to safety. This system cannot work once a spacecraft reaches orbit.

“When Crew Dragon takes NASA Astronauts to the space station in 2017, they will be riding in one of the safest, most reliable spacecraft ever flown,” said Spacex President and Chief Operating Officer Gwynne Shotwell.

Boeing's CST-100 Starliner

First Crewed Flight: 2018

Like SpaceX, aerospace industry veteran Boeing will also shuttle NASA astronauts to the International Space Station. Its CST-100 Starliner crew capsule is still under development and has recently had its rollout schedule delayed by almost 6 months. The vehicle, which NASA gave Boeing $4.2 billion to develop and fly, will be able to ferry astronauts to low Earth orbit beginning in 2018 after two unmanned tests next year.

The Starliner can carry up to seven crew members comfortably. If you’ve ever flown on a Boeing 737 or 787, you’ve probably noticed the company’s patented LED “Sky Lighting,” which was created to increase comfort levels (and ticket prices) among passengers and create the illusion of more interior space. Boeing will be adapting this technology to the Starliner.

Boeing CST-100
Boeing aims to send humans to the International Space Station in the 'Starliner' crew capsule in 2018.Boeing

As for the flight itself, the vehicle is completely autonomous but is equipped with manual controls in case a pilot needs to take over navigation. Each Starliner is expected to make ten round-trips to the space station and will have the capability of returning to land using an advanced parachute and airbag system.

Up until recently it was unclear whether Boeing or SpaceX would be the first private company to shuttle astronauts to the ISS, but it seems that with Starliner’s recent delay due to aerodynamic launch and flight software issues, SpaceX's Crew Dragon will take the honors. Regardless, Boeing is making steady progress toward its first launch and has recently bolted together the CST-100 Starliner’s main hull.

Boeing’s newly revised schedule will see the Starliner undergo a pad abort test during the fall of 2017, with an uncrewed orbital flight test scheduled for a few months later. The company hopes to follow these tests with its first crewed mission in February of 2018.

"These programs are challenging," said a company spokesperson to Universe Today reporter Ken Kremer. "As we build and test we are learning things. We are doing everything we can to make sure the vehicle is ready and safe – because that's what's most important."

Sierra Nevada's Dream Chaser

First flight: 2019

Among the lineup of spacecraft set to make their debut over the next few years, Sierra Nevada Corporation’s Dream Chaser is the most unique in design and the most reminiscent of NASA’s beloved Space Shuttle.

The fixed-wing spacecraft has an intriguing history that began in the early eighties during the final days of the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union. The Soviets were testing an experimental spacecraft, the BOR-4, when an Australian spy plane on a routine surveillance flight captured images of the vehicle and sent them to the United States for examination.

Illustration of Sierra Nevada's Dream Chaser spacecraft docked with the International Space Station.
Illustration of Sierra Nevada's Dream Chaser spacecraft docked with the International Space Station. The reusable fixed-wing design is reminiscent of the Space Shuttle, but smaller and more affordable.Sierra Nevada

This intelligence made its way to NASA and led to the agency developing an early concept referred to as the HL-20 -- a design that would later be adopted by Sierra Nevada Corporation and transformed into the Dream Chaser. While the spacecraft resembles the retired Space Shuttle, it’s fundamentally different due to its much smaller size -- a design feature that promotes reusability and mobility.

In 2015, Sierra Nevada won a contract to resupply the International Space Station using an unmanned version of their vehicle.

With a commitment to fly at least six missions, the Dream Chaser’s design and reusability will set it apart from an increasingly crowded line of spacecraft. After being launched aboard a ULA Atlas V rocket, the vehicle will carry about 12,000 pounds to the orbiting laboratory and return home safely with cargo by landing on almost any commercial runway. This is unique to the Dream Chaser given its fixed-wing design and the lack of toxic materials used in its manufacturing.

While we wouldn't initially see Dream Chaser flying humans to low Earth orbit, Sierra Nevada Vice President John Roth says "we are still absolutely committed to eventually getting a crew version of Dream Chaser."

Blue Origin's New Shepard

First Crewed Flight: 2018

Chances are you’ve heard the name Alan Shepard before. He was one of NASA’s original seven Mercury astronauts and the first American in space. For this reason, billionaire Jeff Bezos has chosen this namesake for his spaceflight company’s flagship vehicle, which could soon transform everyday people into real astronauts. Blue Origin’s New Shepard capsule will propel up to six aspiring astronauts at Mach 3 to their destination beyond the ‘Kármán line’ -- the internationally recognized edge of space -- 62 miles (100 km) above the Earth.

Blue Origin's crew capsule
Blue Origin's crew capsule seats 6 astronauts.Blue Origin

Jezz Bezos is the founder of Amazon.com and the current owner of the Washington Post -- two successful businesses built on user experience. Blue Origin will surely be no different. On New Shepard, a third of the capsule's surface is taken up by the largest windows in spaceflight history, dedicated to letting travelers enjoy the view while leaving Earth's atmosphere.

“Interested in reserving a window seat?” asks Blue Origin on its website. “By providing your information here, you’ll receive early access to pricing information and tickets when we open reservations.” But what happens when you do secure your ticket? Boarding a flight to space isn't exactly the same as boarding your flight for Disney World.

New Shepard windows
New Shepard boasts the largest windows in spaceflight history, for your viewing pleasure.Blue Origin

Two days before the launch of your New Shepard vehicle atop a 60-foot reusable rocket, you’ll have to make a trip out to the desert plains of Blue Origin’s West Texas launch facility -- a remote location that will set the tone for your journey. The following day you will learn what your responsibilities are as astronauts as well as how to fully make the most of your experience. You’ll be given a mission briefing, an overview of the vehicle’s operational procedures and most importantly, how to maneuver in a zero-gravity environment.

On the day you’ve probably waited your entire life for, you’ll climb a launch tower step-by-step then through a hatch and into your seat on New Shepard. Before countdown, you’ll participate in final readiness and communications checks as well as receive your final clearance to launch. Once the engines are fired, New Shepard will hit 3Gs for a little over two minutes until the boosters are disengaged and the vehicle soars into space.

When blue sky turns to black sky and the capsule has separated from the booster rocket, that’s your cue to release your harness and enjoy two of the rarest experiences a human can have: weightlessness, and the life-changing view of Earth from space. The downside? You’ll only be there for a few minutes.

World View Capsule

First Crewed Launch: 2017

The concept of a life-changing view of Earth from space isn’t exclusive to Blue Origin. For a price of $75,000 per ticket, World View will launch a civilian from a spaceport in Tucson, Arizona and ascend to about 100,000 feet.

Voyagers will have a relatively smooth journey to their destination, which is not technically space but certainly distant enough to see the Earth’s curvature against a black sky. Passengers won’t be experiencing the usual G forces associated with a trip through Earth’s atmosphere, because instead of sitting on top of a powerful rocket, they will be elevated by about 1,000 feet per minute in a helium balloon-lifted spacecraft.

WorldView capsule
World View offers a gentler ride into the stratosphere via a helium-filled balloon.WorldView

Once at its destination, the still-in-development capsule will remain at a fixed location for a much longer time than any other space tourism company can offer. While Blue Origin will take its passengers far beyond where this capsule can go, World View will be able to remain at its vantage point for much longer.

"Part of the power of this transformative experience has to do with the variable of time," explained retired astronaut Ron Garan, who'll be piloting people to this vantage point using World View's high-altitude balloon technology. "Our voyagers will have a few hours to process the experience, which I think will be good. The more you have the better it is."

World View’s capsule will be friendly to today’s brand of tourist. It will be equipped with Internet so voyagers can tweet, Instagram and share their incredible experience with friends and family back on Earth. Food and beverages will be available on the spacecraft, as well as a bathroom. Most importantly, voyagers will be able to view the Earth through large windows and hopefully experience something that is perspective-shifting and awe-inspiring.

World View capsule

Statosphere Sight Seeing

An artist rendering of the World View Voyager Capsule floating on the edge of spaceWorld View

Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo

Launch date: Unknown

On October 31st 2014, a spacecraft exploded mid-flight and crashed in the Mojave desert. Built by eccentric billionaire Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic and dubbed the SpaceShipTwo, the reusable fixed-wing vehicle was the company's first in a fleet of private spacecraft meant for suborbital passenger flights. The ill-fated test flight of the VSS Enterprise resulted in the death of one pilot and serious injuries for another.

Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo
Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwoVirgin Galactic

At the time, Virgin Galactic had already sold more than 700 tickets at $250,000 a pop, mostly to the very rich and to celebrities like Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber. Sir Richard Branson himself had already sunk close to half a billion dollars into the company.

The tragic incident has grounded the company for three years now, but operations are underway to get the next SpaceShipTwo, the VSS Unity, off the ground. The structurally identical second spacecraft was unveiled with much fanfare earlier this year and is expected to help rebuild the public's confidence in Virgin Galactic.

SpaceShipTwo will be able to accommodate two pilots and six passengers on a journey to suborbital space. Unlike any other human-capable spacecraft that will debut over the next few years, SpaceShipTwo will launch from mid-air at an altitude of around 50,000 feet. Virgin Galactic will utilize a custom-built twin fuselage aircraft called the WhiteKnightTwo and its four jet engines to lift SpaceShipTwo for a safe air launch.

WhiteKnightTwo

Flight Over The Mojave

Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo will launch from a twin-fuselage aircraft named the WhiteKnightTwo.Flickr/Jeff Foust, CC BY 2.0

After detachment from WhiteKnightTwo, the spacecraft will be able to travel about 70 more miles at around 2,600 mph and earn each of its passengers official astronaut status -- a selling point on Virgin Galactic’s website. The SpaceShipTwo's fuselage is lined with a dozen windows, which allow multiple views of both space and the Earth. The seats are custom-designed and can articulate in a way that helps curb the passenger’s exposure to G forces during ascent and descent.

It is unclear when SpaceShipTwo will make its first test flight as it is still undergoing a phase of ground testing.

“We still know so little about space and how our understanding of it can benefit life on our planet,” explains Virgin Galactic's website. "What is clear is that the ability for more people to cross the final frontier of space will be key to human advancement.”