At the time that I publish this, there is only one privately-funded spacecraft that meets my standards for being a real, actual thing. It's always tricky writing about the future, because you'll inevitably be wrong. This is why I've held off on this part of the series for years now. But we've reached the point where some clear progress is visible just over the horizon and it should be a busy 2 or 3 years. Even if only half of these make it to space, that's still a huge spurt. I'll update this as history unfolds. Hey, Future Me, how's that history looking so far?
It's also weird that it happens to be convenient to stick the future possibles in the same post as the commercial vessels. I'm not suggesting this should be a default pairing, we just happen to be sitting at a point in history where I can mention both in the same breathe and be sort of half accurate.
There is currently only one example of a non-government funded spacecraft. It's arguably not all that important to draw this public/private dichotomy, but you could argue similarly against a state-of-origin system of organising my list. Even in the non-capitalist states, there were companies building rockets, not government officials. Every single NASA launch is, in some sense, a commercial exercise for someone. And the companies publicised as most independent, like Scaled Composites and SpaceX, use various government-derived expertise and resources. It happens to be handy to me, from a writing structure perspective, to follow historical distinctions, but ultimately physics is all that really separates one vessel from another.
(Space plane. In space service 24 June 2004 to 4 October 2004)
Definitions are pretty important when talking about SpaceShipOne. Operationally, it's very similar to the X-15, and it similarly made it to space officially, but only suborbitally, by a tight margin (though less tight than X-15). It was also privately funded and built, but still within the US, so it's not too awkward to file it among American stuff. So, yes, technically, by some definitions, it's of socio-historical interest. But I think it's even more interesting from a pure engineering perspective. It's also the root of the USS Rutan's registry number. It's only a pity that Rutan himself tarnished his otherwise lovely heritage by becoming a cranky climate change denier.
It's not a great name, but it is a little memorable, at least. It may have been Rutan's first spaceship, but it was far from the first ever, so it's not the most inspired or appropriate name. The unconventional lack of spaces between words annoys some, and is (not unreasonably) cocked up by others, making it things like 'Space Ship One' or 'Spaceship One'. Personally, I look forward to the development of some new carbonyl-carrying compound called spaceshipone.
The unusual aircraft that carried it up to launch altitude, White Knight, had a more interesting name, though it appears to have been given that name mainly because it was painted mostly white, which is still slightly uninspired. White Knight was later renamed White Knight One, when it was decided that SpaceShipTwo would be carried into the air by a White Knight Two. I can appreciate the symmetry, but I'm less joyous about changing names after the thing's not even carrying SpaceShipOne anymore. The inconsistency with the spaces between words also rubs me the wrong way too, but these are nitpicks.
SpaceShipOne's flight profile was pretty similar to the X-15's suborbital flights. It got carried to altitude by White Knight, then was released and fired its rocket, which lifted it up over 100km. Then it fell down again. The genius part here was the wing-feathering system, which hinged the whole tail boom assembly vertical, essentially turning the vessel's angle of attack at right angles, so that it would do a slow, controlled belly flop into the atmosphere, rather than a fast (and hot) nose-first dive. This meant it didn't need such crazy re-entry heat protection. Then it transforms back and lands as a normal glider. Although it was designed to be able to carry up to three people, per the X-Prize rules, it only ever carried a single pilot at a time.
The one and only SpaceShipOne flew several glide tests, as well as three suborbital flights, before being retired.
And then we have the future probables, in order of, as best I can tell, scheduled first space flight. If 100% of them make it into space, then the number of different spaceship classes on my list will have increased (from the 17 total in 2012) by nearly 50%, in approx. 10% as much time as it took to create the first 17 designs.
[EDIT: Adding New Shepard]
(Drop ship. Due to begin space service
I admit I'd skimmed over articles about New Shepard while I was originally writing this post, and assumed it would never amount to anything, mainly because so little has been released about it. Looking more closely, that may simply be because it's been kept very secret, for some reason. Turns out they've already built and tested quite a lot for this design, though nothing in space yet, so it's potentially quite interesting. Unfortunately, it's hard to say anything specific, because there's close to nothing known about it.
The basic design is a two-module thing, vaguely in the Gemini arrangement, but with a stubby dome-ended sausage shape that makes it look more like a dildo than any other crewed spacecraft I know of [seriously, look]. The really big, uncrewed propulsion module serves as the complete launcher, from ground to apogee of a strictly sub-orbital flight. The stated function would be space tourism and quick research. Both modules then make powered landings, much like the Dragon V2/Falcon first stage combo aim to, though the Crew Capsule module also seems to have parachutes for emergencies. A scrap of a suggestion has been revealed that a New Shepard-derived, biconic crew module could use a totally new two-stage launcher for orbital flights, with the first stage and crew capsule recovered, even more similar to the Dragon V2 plan. However, I'd like to see the initial New Shepard working before giving much credence to plans for the step after it.
The name New Shepard is a reference to Alan Shepard of Mercury 3 and Apollo 14. I like that well enough, though the 'New' bit throws me every time I look at it, as if there ought to have been a previous vessel, the old Shepard (in the fashion of New York or New Berlin). They had a similar theme of historic rocket-related people when they named the initial uncrewed test rig for the Crew Module's powered landing system Goddard, after Robert Goddard. I'm not clear if Goddard was strictly an in-atmosphere test unit, or if it represented an earlier design for the Crew Capsule, but it was definitely more of a curvy cone, like a featureless Dragon V2, than the current dome shape. Two subsequent test units appear to have gone unnamed. The PM-2 test version of the Propulsion Module was destroyed in a test flight. The next one, a full-scale Crew Module
[EDIT: It's very possible I'm getting something wrong here, because in this post, Blue Origin talk about still having Propulsion Modules PM-2 and PM-3 under construction after the first developmental test flight, with an implication that that flight used PM-1. I'm not certain how this fits together with the earlier destroyed PM-2 test unit.]
[EDIT: It's since come out that successors to New Shepard - an orbital New Glenn and an extra-orbital New Armstrong, each named after other US astronauts - will primarily be launchers, not crew vessels, though they may have crew modules mounted on them.]
(Drop ship. Due to begin space service in
[EDIT 2: Nope, turns out that's not contractually required after all, so it's still up to NASA to decide who gets the first crewed flight opportunity.]
Dragon V2 is the people-carrying cousin to what is now sometimes called Dragon V1 (though most people still call that one simply Dragon, and there are actually two variants of it, one for NASA and one for other users). For the sake of clarity, I will add the V1 suffix here. The smaller Dragon V1 is a pure cargo carrier, similar in function to Russia's Progress, and both have been used for space station resupply. But from the start, there was talk of a people-carrying Dragon. The initial concept art for it looked barely different from the cargo version, but when the actual form of it was finally revealed, Dragon V2 ended up looking quite a lot bigger and sleeker. It consists of two modules: The capsule, which contains nearly all of the vessel's systems, including thrusters, and the 'trunk', which is a disposable cargo bay with solar panels on the outside, similar to the Dragon V1's trunk section.
[EDIT: Note that emerging common usage, both from Musk and the media, is the informal name Crew Dragon, as opposed to Cargo Dragon.]
Dragon V2 would be just another space condom if it weren't intended to be re-used for multiple flights per capsule. It will be able to land by landing rockets and/or parachute, and then should be patched up and relaunched, perhaps 10 times each. By my definition, that shifts it into the drop ship category. There are parallel plans to make the Falcon launch rockets partly reusable too, presumably because of the introduction of the Contracts system. Dragon V2 was chosen together with CST-100 to carry astronauts to the International Space Station for NASA, and it will be interesting to see if it sees any other use. Long-term plans have spoken of another descendant of Dragon V1, called Red Dragon, for a Mars sample return mission, and there are even vaguer suggestions of some sort of enlarged Dragon variant as the mobile homes used by Mars One.
The origin of the name was apparently the song "Puff the Magic Dragon", which was somehow a reference to how critics thought the spacecraft would fail to ever materialise; I kind of get it, but it's not the most obvious leap. Still, it's a pretty cool, traditionally mythological name; it works. The people-carrying version was not originally going to be called Dragon V2; instead, early references to it used the name DragonRider, which I think would have been much cooler (if oddly spaced). As Red Dragon also illustrates, it's quite easy to construct themed variations around the basic Dragon name, so to instead fall back on mere numbered variants seems lazy and uninspired. V2, really close to V-2, also brings to mind the unfortunate military origins of space rocketry. I find it hard to believe that a whole group of professional rocket designers weren't aware of that, so I have to assume it's at least a partially intentional reference. There has been no indication that individual Dragon V2s will get unique names. I have not yet found any clear indication of how the Falcon rocket family got its name.
[EDIT: I just found out, the Falcon rockets are named after the Millennium Falcon. So it's broadly the same sort of name-origin as Enterprise
[EDIT: Musk continues to lean on scifi roots for his ship naming, with landing barge-drones named after ships from Ian M. Banks novels. Being nautical and not astronautical, that's not strictly within the scope of my series, but still fun to know.]
[EDIT: There is apparently a campaign to have the first crewed Dragon V2 named Serenity, similar to the campaign that got a shuttle named Enterprise.]
(Drop ship. Due to begin space service by
CST-100 won the greater share of NASA's space station people-ferry business, with the remainder going to Dragon V2. The whole point of CST-100 is be a short-range, large-crew Apollo clone, with a conical crew module leading a stubby cylindrical service module. Like Dragon V2, each CST-100 crew module should be reusable up to 10 times, though they will land exclusively via parachute. They really have just recycled the Apollo design for this one. Unsurprisingly, development of CST-100 was ahead of both Dragon V2 and Dream Chaser at the time that NASA announced their final selection, and yet they've retained the latest date estimate for their first test flight.
The name does not satisfy me. CST stands for Crew Space Transportation, which is immediately far too literal for my tastes, and the 100 is a reference to the 100km Karman Line. I don't see why that's there, except perhaps to give the illusion of a heritage of 99 previous designs? As alluded to under the Dream Chaser entry, much has been made of the safety and reliability of the Apollo heritage, so I presume they're trying to keep people focused on that aspect as much as possible. If individual CST-100s are getting unique names, none have been revealed yet.
[EDIT: The official name of this one was changed to CST-100 Starliner in September 2015. Starliner is a name intended to reflect Boeing's commercial airliner names, the 307 Stratoliner and 787 Dreamliner. I don't think that's much of a real naming heritage, but rather a contrived marketing decision, considering the dozens of Boeing airliners between the 307 and 787 that had either a different naming scheme or, more frequently, no name at all. This fits very well with my earlier interpretation of the CST-100 code as an attempt to paint Boeing's design as tried and true, a venerable tradition, far more trustworthy than any of these young Johnny-Launch-Latelys. Same marketing guys picked the name Starliner for it, I guess. That said, I do actually like the name Starliner. It's not inappropriate, especially for something intended for a routine, dull use like station ferrying, and it sounds kind of pretty, regardless of any cynicism in its origin. I'll actually be happier if they drop the silly CST-100 bit and start refering to it as simply the Starliner.]
CST-100 is supposed to be able to be launched using one of several rockets, including the same Atlas V as Dream Chaser, the same Falcon 9 as Dragon V2, and the same Delta IV (though perhaps not the Heavy) as Orion. They're not picky. The Delta rocket family got its name from its predecessor, the much more exciting Thor rockets, when the name of one variant, the Thor-Delta, mutated enough that the Thor part was dropped, leaving only the Delta. [EDIT: It has also been announced that the Starliner should be compatible with the proposed Vulcan rocket, which is unsurprising as Vulcan will be a unified hybrid of Atlas V and Delta IV systems. Vulcan got its name in a pretty stupid public voting process, where 3 pretty terrible names were proposed and none got much attention. So ULA decided to ride on Leonard Nimoy's coat-tails instead, throwing a 4th option in late, which apparently won. It's a good enough name for a rocket, though I foresee some confusion between the names Vulcan and Falcon, operating so close together.]
(Space condom. Due to begin space service in
|ISRO's Orbital Vehicle|
This is probably the least-discussed spacecraft on my list, partly because not much is known about it yet, as it was only recently announced. And yet, the plan is to have it actually in space relatively soon? We'll have to see. If successful, it will add India to the people-in-space-putting club. The design is described as being similar to the old Mercury, but if initial drawings and descriptions are accurate, it'll be closer to
I hope to fuck that I get to update this entry with a better name than Orbital Vehicle soon. All other more creative options aside, India has rich and ancient mythologies to draw decent names from, so simply following the American/Chinese mythological naming pattern should be able to produce a better name than fucking mud-lame Orbital Vehicle. However, considering it will launch aboard a rocket named Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle mark II, I am not filled with confidence in their spacecraft-naming ambitions.
[EDIT: Without much fanfare, this one's actually progressed a lot further than I knew. An uncrewed crew module performed a suborbital test flight in December 2014. The final design (see diagram above) is a little stockier than I originally reported, with space for 3 crew, not just 2. The crew module now more closely resembles the shape of the Dragon V1, with a tiled surface that brings to mind Orion.]
(Space plane. Due to begin space service in
Currently undergoing a much more extensive series of atmospheric test flights than SpaceShipOne had, SpaceShipTwo is clearly a scaled-up version of its predecessor, designed to operate in the same way, using the same technology, but now also with a bunch of passengers aboard. A larger carrier plane, White Knight Two, fills exactly the same role as White Knight One did. All the published claims talked about SpaceShipTwo getting people into space by 2014, a decade after its predecessor, but it seems unlikely it'll meet that deadline, and emphasis has since been shifted towards ensuring safety, which I approve of.
There's not a lot more to say about the class name, other than that it at least gives a clear sense of the design heritage. More interesting is that they're building more than one of this design (and more than one of its carriers), so individual vehicle names are also a thing. The first two off the production line are named VSS Enterprise
[EDIT: VSS Enterprise has just been destroyed in a crash during a test flight. It never reached space.]
[EDIT: Some doubt has been cast on the second vehicle being named Voyager, perhaps complicated by the loss of Enterprise.] [A trademark application has triggered speculation that they might call it VSS Unity. I will comment on this if it is confirmed.] [The official unveiling of the completed vehicle confirmed that it is now officially named VSS Unity. I've read through all the speech transcripts from this event, and there is no clear explanation of the choice of name, beyond a vague sense of "hey, we should all get along and be groovy". I can't argue with the sentiment, but I do like my naming explanations more concrete than that. I notice the name is written as Un1ty on the actual nose of the vessel (compare with the I on Enterprise's nose), but this seems to be just artistic licence. All other official sources spell it with an I.]
The White Knight Twos also get unique names, with the first called VMS Eve, with VMS standing for Virgin Mothership, and Eve being Richard Branson's mother's name. The next is due to be called VMS Spirit of Steve Fossett, after the aviator with links to both Virgin and Scaled Composites, and in the same form as Spirit of St. Louis. A third is planned after that, and it seems a safe bet it will also be named after a person with company associations.
[EDIT: Adding Interplanetary Transport System]
Interplanetary Transport System
(Drop ship. Due to begin space service in 2021?)
|Interplanetary Transport System spaceship|
We've known for years that SpaceX aims to send people to Mars, and they've gradually slipped out small hints about what was originally called their Mars Colonial Transport vessel concept. September 2016 saw them publicise far more in one go, detailing the overall plan for what is now named the Interplanetary Transport System - though to quote Elon Musk, "We're thinking about names. The names thing is really hard."
ITS (or whatever) is a deceptively simple monster. On the pad, it looks like it's only got two stages, a launch vehicle with a spaceship mounted on top. However, even just that simple pair would be the most powerful rocket ever flown, carrying the single most massive spacecraft ever. Add to this that each Mars trip would need to be supported by a series of refuelling flights by equally massive tankers up to the spaceship in Earth orbit first, and it really is a complicated, multi-stage system. They just don't launch all the stages at the same time.
It's all still fairly new and vague. I expect the physical design will change, and the schedule will most certainly slip. The first Mars landing is roughly scheduled for June 2024, but it's not yet clear what the test flights before that will entail, nor at what point they'll change from uncrewed to crewed test flights. (I'm not even clear whether this thing even technically requires a crew.) And from my point of view, one key change will be the adoption of more formal names, not just for the whole system, but for its components. So far, they're just refering to the major bits as the launcher, the spaceship and the tanker. I hope they come up with a good naming scheme.
But we do at least know that their first crewed spaceship to visit Mars is to be named the Heart of Gold, after the Hitchhiker's Guide vessel. This fits well with Musk's habit of drawing names from pop scifi. [I'd also like to suggest the name Botany Bay, if Musk wants to add to his supervillain reputation.]
(Space condom or drop ship? Due to begin space service in
As recently as 2 weeks ago, I was still ignorant enough that I couldn't tell any difference between CST-100 and Orion; I thought Orion had been completely cancelled along with the Constellation Program, and that CST-100 was simply a surviving proposal for Orion's design. Some elements of CST-100 may have come from Boeing's earlier Crew Exploration Vehicle bid to the Constellation Program that ultimately saw Orion selected instead, but that's where the relationship seems to end. I am uncertain to what extent both companies' partnership as the United Launch Alliance might have had any effect on these designs. While CST-100 is designed almost solely for space station shuttling, Orion is mainly intended as an explorer out far from Earth (though its official description does grudgingly accept that it could also be used as another station ferry, if nothing better is available).
The one thing they explicitly do have in common is an intentional recycling of Apollo's basic design, especially the conical command module. Orion has a more complicated-looking service module, which has learnt from Soyuz to add some solar panel wings, although even those are funny-looking umbrellas in early artwork, then replaced with the same windmill strips as the ATV cargo vessel, once that was announced as the new basis for the service module. With years of development still to come, and a much less clear end goal for it than Apollo had, the final design may still vary a lot.
The crew modules of CST-100 and Orion look externally very similar, when separate from their more distinct other components, especially in uncoloured diagrams, and the easiest way I've found to tell them apart so far is counting windows. CST-100 has a single, big, square window and some smaller round ones. Orion has two big, square, recessed forward windows and two smaller, square, sideways windows, more like those on the Apollo CM. Orion can then be distinguished from Apollo CM because Apollo had its access hatch (with its own small, round window) between the two forward windows, while Orion seems to have the forward windows close together and the access hatch around the side. Orion also has a ring of little indentations (for thrusters?) around the nose that both CST-100 and Apollo CM lack. [EDIT: Distinguishing between them has become a step trickier, as Orion has now gained a silverly looking extra layer of heat shielding, which makes it look even more similar to the silverly looking Apollo CMs that went beyond Earth orbit. The shape of the tile pattern underneath the metallic coat might still be visible, in good enough images, which may also help with distinguishing them.]
Orion was originally going to launch on the Ares family of rockets, but Ares was one of the many cancelled parts of Constellation. Instead, Orion
The name Orion comes from the constellation Orion, a name shared with the Apollo 16 LM and still the only constellation I can reliably identify in the sky. That's nice and spacey enough, and it made more sense when it was part of Constellation. Perhaps they had a constellation naming theme planned out, with each vessel of the class named after a different one? Perhaps that's just my wishful thinking. The related Altair lander (a less obvious Apollo LM descendant) would have carried a similar astronomy theme with its name, before it was cancelled.
[EDIT: I should also point out that Orion has had two official bland, descriptive, abbreviated names too, neither of which I approve of. When it was first requested under Constellation, it - and competing designs - began as the Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV). When Constellation was cancelled, the Orion CEV was renamed the Orion MPCV, the Multi Purpose Crew Vehicle, presumably to pretend it would be super useful for lots of stuff besides that lame exploration stuff that had just been cut from the budget. It made sense to distinguish between Apollo CSM and Apollo LM (though in hindsight, maybe one of them should have just had a totally different name from the start, like the Orion-Altair pair would have had), but since the Orion crew module isn't planned to pair up with another vessel design also called an Orion-something, it seems unnecessary to tack those extra messy letters to the end of a perfectly decent name.]
[EDIT: The first uncrewed, unnamed Orion has now successfully been to space and back once, which in a way puts it ahead of all the other future probables on this list so far. Even so, Orion is still unlikely to get a crew into space this decade.]
(Space condom or drop ship? Due to begin space service in 2023)
Eventually, Soyuz will have to retire, right? Probably, who knows? Russia has had plans, on and off, to replace that venerable condom since at least the '80s, if not earlier. Will this one finally be the one to do it? Maybe. It's far too early to say. Initial plans look like a hybrid of traditional Russian and American space condom designs, with a roughly similar layout to Orion. It's supposed to be a reusable drop ship, probably.
Of everything on this list, this is the one I'll be most surprised to see ever actually getting into space. It has a long history of delays, no huge sponsors, and it doesn't offer much performance - less, in fact, than the purely demonstrational SpaceShipOne, and only one seat more than X-15 offered. There is a bit of a historical trend of proposed spacecraft (both commercial and governmental) faltering completely after similar delays and struggles. The only really interesting thing about Lynx, the fact that it would be a single-stage vehicle, with no carrier plane or launch rocket needed, could either make it more cost-effective (and thus more likely to fly), or too under-powered to achieve much (and thus less likely to fly).
The name has no clear explanation that I can find, except perhaps that it has an X in it. In fact, it began development with the name Xerus, which I believe is a genus of squirrel. I guess that's more X-centric (pun!), but maybe they thought people would be more familiar or comfortable with a name like Lynx? I have no idea what to make of this. Insufficient data.
[EDIT: Lynx is officially indefinitely on hold. My money continues to say that this will never fly, especially since the people who actually wanted it to fly have left the company. I leave it here for reference.]
NASA ruled out several options before selecting CST-100 and Dragon V2 as their new station crew ferries, and the last, most developed proposal to be ruled out was Dream Chaser. Officially, currently, NASA does not intend to use any Dream Chasers, though that is under some dispute. We'll see how that goes, but I'll be a little surprised if NASA's decision is reversed. Regardless of that, ESA has already got its own plans to test a slightly different Dream Chaser variant of their own. At this time, this is the only design on my future probable list with a specific first flight date released to the public.
As a lifting body space plane, Dream Chaser represents the sort of simple DC-3 kind of design that the Space Shuttle Orbiter was originally conceived as. I think it's fair to say that this form of spacecraft is now understood nearly as well as the simple space condom form, so I don't quite buy the argument that copying the Apollo CSM is necessarily the easiest or safest option. The longevity of Soyuz might seem to back that up, but the Shuttle wasn't exactly a flash in the pan either, relatively speaking. It all depends on the particular design, construction and operation of each vessel, much more than on the design heritage it happens to have.
[EDIT: An internal NASA document on the issue suggests that they basically don't sufficiently trust Sierra Nevada's management. And it seems they really, very, super-super trust Boeing's management, which is why CST-100 gets the bigger slice of the commercial crew pie. To my amateur eye, it looks a little like a bureaucracy fetish, but I suppose there has to be more to spaceflight operations than just the vessel.]
[EDIT: The uncrewed cargo variant of Dream Chaser has now been officially hired by NASA as a station supply ferry. This might give the original crewed variant more of a chance to get into space too, but nothing about that step is confirmed yet. The cargo variant (formally called the Dream Chaser Cargo System) differs in that it has folding wings to fit inside of a launch rocket's fairing, it has no windows, and it has a disposable extra cargo module (possibly with solar arrays) hanging off the butt. Launching it inside of a closed fairing does make the aerodynamics of launch simpler, and it gives the vehicle a bit more protection, but on the other hand, the folding wings are another moving part that could go wrong. On average, I'm not sure if it's a worthwhile change, but then I'm not a rocket engineer; it will at least be interesting to see if any cargo variant changes are carried over to the crew variant.]
Dream Chaser would launch on an Atlas V (a descendent of the type that launched the Mercury orbital missions) for NASA, or potentially an Ariane 5 (which gets its name from Minoan mythology) for ESA.
The name Dream Chaser was apparently passed between a series of related proposed designs, and it's literal enough that it's clear what the designers were thinking with it (much clearer than the "Puff the Magic Dragon" link), but it's still interesting and creative enough. It's a literal description of a sentiment, not of the actual vehicle. Individual vehicle names are also planned, but remain unannounced. Rumour says the first atmospheric test Dream Chaser is called Eagle, after the Apollo 11 LM. We'll have to wait and see. [EDIT: One source claims that the first spaceworthy Dream Chaser was initially named, in internal Sierra Nevada discourse, as Ascalon, after the name sometimes given to the weapon used by George the dragon-slayer - which would be a clear jab at their SpaceX competitors. Supposedly this was later cleaned up to the much more neutral Ascension. However, none of these names - Eagle, Ascalon and Ascension - have ever been made officially public, and the evidence for them being used unofficially or internally by the company seems scant so far.]
[EDIT: Second to drop off the future possibles list, Dream Chaser will still fly, but only as an uncrewed cargo ship. The crewed version has been quietly dropped from all official plans.]