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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

Go deeper

Updated 2 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

  1. Health: Coronavirus cases rose 10% in the week before Thanksgiving.
  2. Politics: Supreme Court backs religious groups on New York coronavirus restrictions.
  3. World: Expert says COVID vaccine likely won't be available in Africa until Q2 of 2021 — Europeans extend lockdowns.
  4. Economy: The winners and losers of the COVID holiday season.
  5. Education: National standardized tests delayed until 2022.
4 hours ago - Health

Standardized testing becomes another pandemic victim

Photo: Edmund D. Fountain for The Washington Post via Getty

National standardized reading and math tests have been pushed from next year to 2022, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) announced Wednesday.

Why it matters: There’s mounting national evidence that students are suffering major setbacks this year, with a surge in the number of failing grades.

4 hours ago - World

European countries extend lockdowns

A medical worker takes a COVID-19 throat swab sample at the Berlin-Brandenburg Airport. Photo by Maja Hitij via Getty

Recent spikes in COVID-19 infections across Europe have led authorities to extend restrictions ahead of the holiday season.

Why it matters: "Relaxing too fast and too much is a risk for a third wave after Christmas," said European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.