Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios
Astronauts haven't launched from U.S. soil since the end of the space shuttle era in 2011. But as Russian rocketry ages and U.S. commercial and military interests grow, the ability to carry astronauts from the U.S. will be key.
The big picture: Successful commercial crew launches would be a prelude to missions aimed at deep space, including a possible return to the moon and an eventual Mars mission. Both of those are probably more than a decade away.
On the horizon:
- Boeing and SpaceX — both NASA partners — are planning uncrewed tests of their spacecrafts in the first half 2019. SpaceX's first test is scheduled for Jan. 17.
- These uncrewed tests will be accompanied by "abort tests" — a key demonstration of the ability of the crew to escape from the spacecraft in the event of an emergency.
- A demo test flight of SpaceX's Dragon space capsule, carrying two NASA astronauts, is scheduled for June, and the first crewed flight for Boeing is on the docket for August.
Go deeper: Special report: The new global race to space