MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. — While NASA won't be launching anybody to space for a while, American astronauts still have some options for accessing the final frontier in the next few years.
For now, there's Russia's Soyuz vehicle, which will ferry NASA spaceflyers to the International Space Station and back.
But cosmonauts always command those craft. American astronauts who actually want to fly a spaceship — and do it soon — can hope to sign on with commercial spaceflight companies, some of which have already begun looking for pilots.[10 Private Spaceships Headed for Reality]
"We just went through a selection process where we had over 500 pilots apply," George Whitesides, president and CEO of Virgin Galactic, said today (July 29) at the New Space 2011 conference, which is being held here at NASA's Ames Research Center. "We're going to hire three folks over the course of the next 12 months or so."
NASA out of the game for now
NASA is out of the human spaceflight game for at least the next five years. The agency grounded its shuttle fleet after Atlantis touched down on July 21 and is now working toward sending astronauts farther afield — to an asteroid by 2025, and then on to Mars by the mid-2030s.
NASA is developing a crewed vehicle and a heavy-lift rocket to get astronauts to these far-flung destinations, but neither one will be ready to fly until 2016 at the earliest.
The private sector should get people to space —suborbital and perhaps orbital space as well — significantly sooner.
Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo vehicle, for example, should be making suborbital flights by next year, Whitesides said. Those may or may not include fully operational, customer-carrying missions, he added. (Virgin Galactic is charging passengers $200,000 per seat for a ride to the edge of space.)
But customer-carrying or not, those missions will need pilots. And Virgin Galactic isn't the only player in the suborbital arena. XCOR Aerospace, for instance, is selling seats on its two-person Lynx vehicle for $95,000. It will also need folks to fly these spaceships, and soon.
"We will be in flight test operations by next fall," said Khaki McKee, program manager at XCOR.
Flying opportunities for Virgin Galactic and XCOR pilots will likely not be limited to tourist flights, either. Both firms have signed deals with the Southwest Research Institute, a nonprofit organization based in San Antonio, Texas, to fly scientists and their experiments to suborbital space.
Other companies, such as Armadillo Aerospace and Blue Origin, are also developing suborbital passenger-carrying craft. [Vote Now! The Best Spaceships of All Time]
Orbital spaceflight, too
With the space shuttle fleet's retirement, NASA astronauts will depend on Russian Soyuz vehicles to get to low-Earth orbit and back for the next few years.
But this dependence won't last forever. NASA is encouraging American companies to develop spaceships that can take over this orbital taxi service. Various firms — such as SpaceX, Boeing, Sierra Nevada Corp. and Orbital Sciences — have taken on the challenge.
Some of these companies may be flying crews to orbit by 2015. Sierra Nevada, for instance, has said its Dream Chaser space plane should be fully operational by then.
Former NASA astronauts are already migrating to some of these firms to take on management roles. For example, Garrett Reisman, a veteran of two space shuttle missions, joined SpaceX this year to head its commercial crew development program.
And Sierra Nevada has hired Steve Lindsey and Jim Voss — who each flew on five shuttle missions — to help manage its Dream Chaser program.
Perhaps piloting opportunities may open up on the Dream Chaser, SpaceX's Dragon or other orbital vehicles by the middle of the decade. But astronauts with a real jones for flying to space don't necessarily have to wait that long, Whitesides said.
"If you want to be at the pointy end of a really fast vehicle, it's going to be these suborbital, reusable craft that are going to be where it's at," he said. "I think folks already instinctively know that."
You can follow SPACE.com senior writer Mike Wall on Twitter: @michaeldwall. Follow SPACE.com for the latest in space science and exploration news on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.