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U.S. Commercial Human Spaceflight Set to Accelerate as Regulatory Battle Looms

By Doug Messier
Parabolic Arc
April 10, 2023
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U.S. Commercial Human Spaceflight Set to Accelerate as Regulatory Battle Looms
Richard Branson floats aboard SpaceShipTwo during a suborbital flight on July 11, 2021.

U.S. commercial human spaceflight is set to accelerate over the next two years as SpaceX launches more commercial missions into orbit, Blue Origin’s New Shepard resumes suborbital flights, and Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity completes its test flight program and enters commercial service.

The acceleration will occur as Congress debates whether to extend a moratorium on safety regulations designed to protect passengers and crew members. That moratorium is set to expire on October 1, 2023. Industry officials say an extension is needed because the vehicles are not mature enough. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) wants it to expire so that regulations can be formulated. A Congressional review by the Rand Corporation sided with the FAA’s stance.

So, how mature is the industry? How many commercial flights have been conducted? How many people have flown? And what lies ahead for U.S. commercial spaceflight?

Flights to Date

The table below shows spaceflights by Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic, and SpaceX. Boeing is due to join the list this summer when the company conducts a crewed flight test of its CST-100 Starliner spacecraft to the International Space Station (ISS) under NASA’s Commercial Crew program.

Human Spaceflights by U.S. Commercial Companies
December 2018-Present

Company/VehicleTypeNo. of FlightsPassengers/Crew
Blue Origin New ShepardCommercial632*
Virgin Galactic VSS Unity*Flight Tests413+
SpaceX Crew DragonISS Crew624
SpaceX Crew DragonISS Flight Test12
SpaceX Crew Dragon (Ax-1)ISS Commercial14
SpaceX Crew Dragon (Inspiration4)Commercial Orbital14
Subtotal, Orbital:932
Subtotal, Suborbital:1045
Total: 1977
* Reflects number of people onboard; one passenger flew twice
+ Reflects number of people on board; four crew members flew multiple times

Blue Origin’s New Shepard entered commercial service in July 2021. It has flown 31 individuals to suborbital space on six launches. (One passenger, Evan Dick, flew twice.)

Virgin Galactic has conducted four suborbital flight tests with a 13 people on board since December 2018. Three of VSS Unity‘s four pilots have flown the ship more than once. Chief Astronaut Trainer Beth Moses has flown twice in the passenger cabin. She was joined on one flight by Virgin Chairman Richard Branson and two company employees.

SpaceX has flown 32 astronauts on seven Crew Dragon missions to ISS. Six flights were commercial missions that each carried four astronauts from the United States, Europe, Japan, Russia and the United Arab Emirates. These launches were preceded by a demonstration flight that sent NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley on a 64-day mission to ISS.

Former NASA astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria commanded Axiom Space’s Ax-1 mission that took three paying customers to the space station in April 2022. The company has booked three other flights to ISS with SpaceX.

Jared Isaacman commanded the three-day Inspiration4 Earth orbit mission with three crew members in September 2021. Isaacman is planning two commercial Aurora Dawn flights using SpaceX’s Crew Dragon and one flight with the company’s Starship spacecraft.

Launch of Blue Origin's New Shepard
New Shepard launches to space. (Credit: Blue Origin)

Future Suborbital Flights

Blue Origin suspended New Shepard flights last September after a dedicated microgravity launch failed due to a flaw in the booster. The company has identified the cause of the accident and is making modification to prevent a recurrence.

Blue Origin has said it plans to resume flights later this year with a repeat the microgravity mission that failed. The company will also resume launches with paying customers. Blue Origin has not revealed the timetable for New Shepard’s return to flight.

Virgin Galactic plans to complete its flight test program with a suborbital mission with four passengers aboard during the second quarter of this year. That flight will be followed by the company’s first paid mission with two Italian Air Force pilots and an Italian researcher on board. Moses will be in the passenger cabin to help guide them.

Virgin Galactic will then begin flying the first of 800 customers who have signed up for suborbital flights. The company has said they plan to have VSS Unity fly on a monthly basis.

Crew-6 arrives at the International Space Station
The four SpaceX Crew-6 members joined the seven Expedition 68 crew members aboard the space station expanding its population to 11. (Credit: NASA TV)

Future Orbital Flights

At least nine orbital missions carrying 34 astronauts are planned for 2023-24. Twenty-six astronauts are scheduled to visit the space station, and eight astronauts are set to fly missions in Earth orbit.

Future Commercial Orbital Flights

May 8SpaceX Crew DragonAxiom Space (Ax-2)ISS CommercialPeggy Whitson, John Shoffner, Ali AlQarni, Rayyanah Barnawi
July 21Boeing CST-100 StarlinerNASAISS Flight TestBarry Wilmore, Sunita Williams
SummerSpaceX Crew DragonPolaris DawnCommercial OrbitalJared Isaacman, Scott Poteet, Sarah Gillis, Anna Menon
Aug. 17SpaceX Crew DragonNASAISS Crew-7Jasmin Moghbeli, Andreas Mogensen, Satoshi Furukawa, Konstantin Borisov
Nov. 2023SpaceX Crew DragonAxiom Space (Ax-3)ISS Commercial4-member crew will include 2 Turkish astronauts
2024SpaceX Crew DragonNASAISS Crew-84-member crew TBA
2024SpaceX Crew DragonAxiom Space (Ax-4)ISS Commercial4-member crew TBA
2024SpaceX Crew DragonNASAISS Crew-94-member crew TBA
TBASpaceX Crew DragonPolaris DawnCommercial OrbitalJared Isaacman + 3

SpaceX will fly three crews to ISS for NASA at roughly six-month intervals. The first mission will carry American astronaut Jasmin Moghbeli, Russian cosmonaut Konstantin Borisov, Danish astronaut Andreas Mogensen and Japanese astronaut Satoshi Furukawa to the station in August. NASA has ordered a total of 14 flight to ISS from SpaceX.

The first of three additional Axiom missions will lift off on May 8. Former NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson will fly American John Shoffner and Saudi astronauts Ali AlQarni and Rayyanah Barnawi on a two-week mission to the space station.

Axiom Space’s third mission will carry two Turkish astronauts to the station in November. The company has not yet named the rest of the four-member crew. Axiom Space will conduct its fourth mission in 2024.

Boeing CST-100 Starliner approaches the International Space Station
Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft approaches the International Space Station. (Credit: Bob Hines/NASA)

NASA astronauts Barry Wilmore and Sunita Williams will fly Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner on a week-long flight test to ISS. It will be the final flight before Starliner begins carrying astronauts to the station on a commercial basis. NASA and Boeing have not announced when the first operational mission will be flown.

Isaacman will command the first Polaris Dawn mission over the summer. He will be joined by retired U.S. Air Force pilot Scott Poteet and SpaceX employees Sarah Gillis and Anna Menon. The crew will fly parts of the Van Allen radiation belt and conduct the first commercial spacewalk.

Isaacman has not publicly revealed the schedule for the second and third Polaris Dawn missions.

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