A SpaceX rocket soared into orbit Wednesday evening, carrying four people — none of whom are professional astronauts — and kicking off the first-ever mission to Earth’s orbit crewed entirely by tourists.
But 2021 is expected to be even bigger for the burgeoning industry as reigning giants such as SpaceX continue to pursue futuristic technologies — from Mars rockets to space-based internet service and extraterrestrial tourism.
Here’s a look at what the private sector has planned in space next year.
Astronauts fly commercial
SpaceX made history when its Crew Dragon spacecraft proved it can ferry NASA astronauts to the International Space Station, marking the first time in SpaceX’s 18-year history that the company put humans in space. It was also the climax of a decade-long partnership with NASA to return human spaceflight capabilities to the United States.
SpaceX is expected to make those trips routine. Another group of astronauts is expected to take flight aboard a Crew Dragon in Spring 2021, and yet another Crew Dragon flight could launch next Fall.
The ability to fly its own astronauts after spending nearly a decade relying on Russian spacecraft to put US astronauts in space is a huge deal for NASA. The space agency says it’ll now be able to keep the space station fully staffed, allowing a dramatic boost in the amount of research that astronauts are able to conduct aboard the ISS.
Next year, Boeing could also add another vehicle to the United States’ arsenal of human-worthy spacecraft. The company is planning to conduct the first crewed flight of its Starliner vehicle, which is being developed under the same NASA program as SpaceX’s Crew Dragon.
Boeing’s Starliner, which looks similar to SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, will first need to re-do a botched flight test that the company tried to carry out one year ago. Boeing says it’s targeting March 29 for a second attempt, and — if all goes well — Starliner’s first crewed launch could kick off a few months later.
Both Boeing and SpaceX’s spacecraft are privately owned, per the terms of the development deal they signed with NASA, which means both companies will have the option to sell seats aboard their spacecraft to anyone who can afford the roughly $50 million per-seat price tag.
SpaceX has already signed a deal with Axiom, a startup founded by former NASA Administrator Michael Suffredini, to take a group of “private astronauts” to the ISS aboard a Crew Dragon in the second half of 2021.
Axiom has confirmed two of the crew members that will be on that flight: Michael Lopez-Alegria, a former NASA astronaut and veteran of three Space Shuttle missions who will fly as a private citizen, and Eytan Stibbe, a former Israeli fighter pilot and wealthy investor who is reportedly funding his own trip.
Suborbital joy rides
Two billionaire-backed ventures — Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic and Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin — are developing small rocket-powered vehicles with the goal of sending wealthy thrill-seekers on brief trips into the upper atmosphere.
Virgin Galactic, which went public via a reversed merger in 2019, has moved into its luxurious new spaceport in New Mexico and is preparing to open for business as soon as next year. Branson is planning to be among the first passengers on board the supersonic space plane that the company has spent the past two decades building and testing. A recent test flight of that vehicle was cut short due to an engine issue, but Virgin Galactic is still hoping to finish its final tests within the next few months.
Blue Origin, which developed a fully autonomous rocket and capsule that takes off vertically from a launch pad, could also open for business next year. The company has tested its technology at a remote site in West Texas 13 times and spent years showing off the spacecraft’s large windows and spacious cabin.
Blue Origin, however, has not yet announced the price of tickets or when it plans to start selling them.
Virgin Galactic, on the other hand, has sold more than 600 tickets priced between $200,000 and $250,000. And the company plans to reopen ticket sales soon, though executives have warned that prices will go up.
ULA goes to the Moon, Bezos’s orbital rocket takes flight
In the rocket launch business, SpaceX may be facing stiffer competition than ever next year. Two companies — United Launch Alliance, a joint Lockheed Martin-Boeing venture, and Blue Origin — are planning to introduce two massive new launch vehicles that aim to compete with SpaceX’s Falcon rockets on launch power and price.
Blue Origin’s towering New Glenn rocket — which is roughly five times taller than the company’s space tourism rocket — is expected to conduct its inaugural launch next year after years of development.
ULA’s rocket, called the Vulcan Centaur, is expected to kick off with a bang: It’s first-ever mission will be to deliver a lunar lander to the moon sometime next year. That rover, built by a startup called Astrobotic, will deliver research cargo to the lunar surface on behalf of NASA.
Blue Origin’s, ULA’s and SpaceX’s hulking rockets are expected to battle it out for lucrative government launch contracts for years to come. The United States military, for example, recently selected SpaceX and ULA for nearly a billion dollars with of contracts. Blue Origin lost out on that round, but it’s expected to continue vying for future missions.
For years, a group of young companies have hoped to develop small rockets — a fraction of the size of SpaceX’s Falcon rockets — that can cheaply launch new satellites into space on a regular bases. This could open up new business opportunities, according to entrepreneurs and Silicon Valley investors.
Rocket Lab is the only one of those companies to actually put a rocket in space so far, and it has launched more than a dozen successful missions in the past couple of years.
But 2021 may be the year that new players finally enter the scene.