When the SpaceX Dragon Endurance took flight atop a Falcon 9 rocket from Kennedy Space Center on Wednesday, it marked the fifth flight to carry humans aboard the commercially built spacecraft.
It also transported among its four passengers the 600th human to make it into space. Three of the four Crew-3 astronauts are space rookies.
Based on his mission assignment from NASA, European Space Agency astronaut Matthias Maurer, takes the 600th spot. The flight also took Kayla Barron, the 601st person to space, in that she was the last of the four assigned to the crew in May.
No. 599 is mission commander Raja Chari, while Thomas Marshburn punched his first spaceflight ticket in 2009 on STS-127 aboard Space Shuttle Endeavour and then again on a Soyuz flight in 2012. This is his third flight.
In all, with SpaceX’s latest, 13 types of spacecraft have made 354 trips to space with humans along for the ride since Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space in 1961.
SpaceX itself has been responsible for 18 humans in the past 18 months.
“Human spaceflight was the reason we were founded, so it’s incredibly meaningful to the whole team,” said SpaceX’s director of Dragon missions Sarah Walker. “We could not be more excited to finally be here and to be standing on the shoulders of giants with this partnership with NASA learning everything that we can … just really dawning a new era of spaceflight and all the possibilities that come with that.”
Just since July, five spacecraft on seven flights have taken 28 people into space.
The definition of space includes the lower threshold of 50 miles set by the U.S. Air Force to be considered an astronaut. Others consider 100 kilometers, known as the Karman line, as the altitude needed to have made it to space. That’s about 62 miles.
From the 13 spacecraft, four have been created by commercial companies with the other nine from government programs: one from China, three from either the Soviet Union or Russia and five from the U.S.
That includes the X-15 rocket-powered jet that took eight pilots past 50 miles altitude in the 1960s.
NASA has also run through its Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and Space Shuttle programs, and Russia and the former Soviet Union have launched cosmonauts on Vostok, Voskhod and Soyuz spacecraft, China has launched taikonauts on Shenzhou spacecraft, and private companies have sent humans into space on SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, Blue Origin’s New Shepard and Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipOne and SpaceShipTwo.
The Soyuz program is the longest running, and continues to send NASA astronauts, Russian cosmonauts and civilians into space with launches from Kazakhstan to the International Space Station. It started in 1967 and has logged 146 launches in which its occupants passed 50 miles altitude, although two of those were aborted before reaching orbit.
The Space Shuttle program lasted from 1981-2011 and has logged the second most having reached space with 134 missions, which does not include Space Shuttle Challenger explosion shortly after liftoff.
After that, the most any one spacecraft has flown with humans are the 15 among the Apollo, Apollo-Soyuz and Skylab flights from 1967-1975. The X-15 sent 13 missions past 50 miles while Gemini hit 10.
The rest had less than 10 each, but both China’s continued spaceflights as well as more flights by private companies will see those spacecraft numbers grow.
SpaceX, for instance, now has four Crew Dragon capsules. The first to fly with humans, Endeavour, took NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to space in May 2020 on a demonstration flight. Since then it has rolled out Resilience used on the first operational flight Crew-1, re-used Endeavour for Crew-2, re-used Resilience for the all-civilian orbital Inspiration4 mission and just sent Crew-3 up on Endurance. The fourth capsule has yet to be named but SpaceX plans to use it next year.
SpaceX will continue flying its rotational crewed missions to the ISS, which go up about once every six months as one of two companies awarded the transportation contract as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. It will also fly civilian missions to the ISS and potentially more civilian orbital flights. It has five flights in the books and is slated to fly at least three more in 2022 for Crew-4 and Crew-5 plus at least one private flight to the ISS through the space tourism company Axiom.
Benji Reed, senior director of Human Spaceflight Programs at SpaceX, said ahead of Inspiration4 that the company could fly as many as six civilian flights annually on top of its NASA responsibilities.
“There’s nothing really that limits our capability to launch,” he said. “It’s about having rockets and Dragons ready to go and having everything in the manifest align with our other launches.”
The other company building a spacecraft for NASA, and could open up to civilian flights, is Boeing with its CST-100 Starliner. It has yet to complete its uncrewed demonstration flight to the ISS and awaits the conclusion of that before its planned crewed demonstration flight and future missions for crew rotation to the station.
Another NASA-related spacecraft slated to eventually fly humans into space is the Orion capsule. An uncrewed version of Orion is set to launch atop the Space Launch System rocket from Kennedy Space Center on Artemis I as early as February 2022 with the crewed Artemis II flight to orbit the moon now targeting May 2024.
And SpaceX continues work on its next-generation human-rated spacecraft, Starship, a version of which is being developed to be the Human Landing System for the Artemis III mission that would transport Orion passengers to the lunar surface potentially in 2025.
The big jump in space travelers, though, will come from suborbital flights in the coming years.
Private companies Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic take short trips to the edge of space. Blue Origin to date has launched twice with humans in its automated New Shepard capsule. Billionaire Jeff Bezos took the first flight this past July with Star Trek star William Shatner headlining the second flight.
Those trips take less than 12 minutes from liftoff to landing, but do pass the Karman line for a short experience of weightlessness and passengers’ ability to see the curvature of the Earth.
Fellow Billionaire Richard Branson beat Bezos to space, although only passing the 50-mile threshold, when he flew aboard his Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo in July. That rocket-powered spacecraft had previously taken several test pilots and passengers into what the company deems space. Future versions of the company’s spacecraft plan to reach higher altitudes.
Other private companies may yet develop more human-rated spacecraft. Sierra Space, which branched off of Sierra Nevada Corp., developed its Dream Chaser craft that is slated to be used as a cargo-only supplier to the ISS in 2022 atop a United Launch Alliance Vulcan rocket, which is still in development. The company had originally pitched a version of it for human flight, but lost out to SpaceX and Boeing. The company has stated it still plans to pursue a crewed version by 2025.
Meanwhile, the governments of China, Russia and India are pursuing new spacecraft as well.
The speed with which space travel is expanding plays into plans of people like Bezos, whose Blue Origin mission statement is “millions of people living and working in space” and SpaceX founder Elon Musk, whose company’s goal is to eventually create a colony on Mars.
“The critical breakthrough that’s needed for us to be a space-faring civilization is to make space travel like air travel,” Musk stated in a 2019 speech detailing plans for Starship. “We’re really right on the cusp of what’s physically possible.”
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