Private Space Travel to Make Giant Leaps in 2013

An artistic rendition of the Dream Chaser vehicle launching into space.
An artistic rendition of the Dream Chaser vehicle launching into space. (Image credit: Sierra Nevada)

This story was updated at 2 p.m. ET, Jan. 2.

Private companies building new spaceships to soar through orbital and suborbital space are looking forward to an action-packed year in 2013, with new flight tests, launches, wind tunnel tests and rocket technology trials all planned during the new year.  

Of the many spacecraft being developed only one has already flown in space, the Dragon capsule built by Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) in Hawthorne, Calif.The unmanned cargo ship has flown in space three times so far, and carried supplies to the International Space Station twice in 2012 — first in May during a test and then again October.

SpaceX’s next cargo flight to the station is set for March 2013. But a new astronaut-carrying version of Dragon is also in the works. The crewed capsule will be different from its robotic predecessor in several key areas, with SpaceX set to advancing technology for the new ship in 2013.

SpaceX’s new Dragon

“Dragon Version 2 won’t look like [today’s Dragon]. I think it looks pretty cool. Dragon one, we didn’t really know what we were doing so that’s why Dragon looks similar to things that have happened in the past,” SpaceX founder Elon Musk told an audience during a talk at the UK’s Royal Aeronautical Society in London on Nov. 21. Musk described Dragon version 2 as having “legs that pop out” and added that it uses parachutes and its eight SuperDraco thrusters for a “propulsive landing”. [SpaceX’s Dragon at the Space Station (Photos)]

While Musk was unavailable for to discuss SpaceX’s plans for 2013, company officials did provide details on its expected activities.

In March the company will review its Dragon pad abort test that is planned for later in the year December; in May SpaceX will perform its human certification plan review for the capsule; in June the crewed Dragon on-orbit and entry design review is expected to occur; July would then see an in-flight abort test review;

A safety review is slated for October; and before the December pad abort test, November will see a flight review of an upgraded version of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, which launches Dragon capsules into orbit.

The SpaceX Dragon commercial cargo craft makes its relative approach to the International Space Station prior to grapple by the station's Canadarm2 robotic arm, controlled by Expedition 33 crew members. This image was taken Oct. 10, 2012. (Image credit: NASA)

NASA needs private space taxis

SpaceX is developing the seven-person Dragon 2 capsule to compete for NASA’s International Space Station (ISS) crew transportation contract. NASA’s commercial crew program is helping industry develop competing space transportation systems to win this ISS contract. Ed Mango is the commercial crew program manager.

“2013 will be a huge year for us. In the first couple of months we’ll kick off work for our certification contract and we’ll award that shortly,” Mango told

Companies selected for the certification contract will get $10 million each and have 15 months to demonstrate, with data, that their rockets and spacecraft can be considered for the space station transport mission. “The [contract winners] are not just making spacecraft and launch vehicles they are also doing it to meet a NASA mission, our mission to the [ISS],” Mango said. [NASA’s Private Space Taxi Plan (Video)]

In the second half of 2013, NASA will start the bidding process for its commercial crew contract that will lead to the certification of one transportation system to take astronauts to the space station. That contract will not be awarded until early 2014, and a few years later NASA astronauts could travel to the station on the successful launch system.

Private spaceship contenders

In theory, while any can bid for those two contracts, Mango suggested that the three companies that have won funded space act agreements under the commercial crew program will be the likely contenders. Those three companies are: SpaceX; Boeing; and Sierra Nevada Corporation.

A model of Boeing's CST-100 space capsule shows the crew-carrying craft's interior design. The CST-100, which can carry up to seven astronauts, could fly its first manned mission by 2015 or 2016, Boeing officials have said. (Image credit: Denise Chow/

Boeing’s spacecraft is the Commercial Space Transportation 100 (CST-100) capsule and is designed to launch atop the Atlas 5 rockets built by the United Launch Alliance’s (ULA). The CST-100 capsule can carry up to seven astronauts and, like Dragon 2, it is expected to land on land. Its design includes airbags to cushion landing, as well as a pusher abort system.

Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser space plane is based on NASA’s HL-20, a spacecraft the agency studied 25 years ago. It is also designed to launch on an Atlas 5 rocket.

In 2012 a Dream Chase prototype was used for a captive carry flight test using a helicopter. In the first half of 2013 an unmanned Dream Chaser will fly low speed approaches and landing tests at NASA's DrydenFlightResearchCenterin California. [Dream Chaser Space Plane in Photos]

“These flight tests are similar to the approach and landing tests that NASA conducted on the Space Shuttle prior to the first launch of the Shuttle.  The [Dream Chaser] program is also continuing significant hardware testing throughout 2013 to continue to advance the design of our subsystems," John Roth, Sierra Nevada Space Systems vice president of business development told

Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) Space Systems' Dream Chaser flight vehicle is lifted by an Erickson Air-Crane helicopter near the Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport in Jefferson County, Colo., on May 29, during a captive-carry test. (Image credit: Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC))

Because the Atlas 5 is the launcher for CST-100 and Dream Chaser, the rocket’s provider ULA is heavily involved with the Boeing and Sierra Nevada work.

“We’re contracted to support Boeing and Sierra Nevadato support their milestones, we’re directly supporting almost all of them,” George Sower, ULA’s Human launch Services vice president, said in an interview.

In 2013, ULA will be continuing to develop the dual engine Centaur upper stage its Atlas 5 needs for launching these manned spacecraft. For satellite launches, the unmanned Atlas 5 has only used a single engine powered Centaur. In April and May, ULA will test ducting to provide propellant for the new Centaur’s two engines. ULA is also planning wind tunnel tests to understand the different aerodynamics of having Boeing’s capsule and Sierra’s winged Dream Chaser on top of the Atlas 5.

Rise of suborbital space planes

While the orbital commercial human spaceflight providers are aiming for operational missions after 2015, the suborbital tourism companies are seeking revenue flights well before then. These suborbital spacecraft are designed to launch beyond the Earth’s atmosphere, but not to enter orbit around the planet. Instead, they will return to Earth to be readied to fly again.

In 2013, XCOR Aerospace is building its Lynx I, which will not fly beyond the 62-mile (100 kilometers) border line between the atmosphere and space. This Lynx rocket plane is a prototype for the planned Lynx Mark 2, which will fly into suborbital space.

“We’re looking at 2013 as the time for our test flight program and in early 2013 we’ll get started. For the Lynx Mark 1, our prototype craft, we’ll be doing test fights throughout the year from early 2013 and then go into commercial flights,” XCOR spokesman Bryan Campen told

After 2013, the Lynx Mark 2, which will fly higher than 62 miles, will be manufactured in Floridaat or near the KennedySpaceCenter, XCOR officials said. The company is also setting up its new headquarters and research center in Midland, Texas.

SpaceShipTwo undertook its 23rd glide flight on Dec. 19 in the pre-powered portion of its incremental test flight program. This was a significant flight as it was the first with rocket motor components installed, including tanks. It was also the first flight with thermal protection applied to the spaceship's leading edges. (Image credit: Luke Colby/Virgin Galactic)

Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo

After 22 gliding tests between October 2010 and August 2012, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo has been edging closer to having its hybrid solid rocket motor added and making its first rocket powered flight. In May 2012 Virgin Galactic was awarded an experimental launch permit by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, which oversees commercial human spaceflight. At the time Virgin Galactic was anticipating a rocket-powered SpaceShipTwo flight by the end of the year.

By Sept. 20, the SpaceShipTwo rocket motor had been fired on the ground 17 times. On Oct. 19, Virgin Galactic released an image of the oxidizer tank being fitted to the first SpaceShipTwo, called the VSS Enterprise.

The oxidizer flows through the hollow center of the solid fuel rocket and when ignited will burn with the fuel to generate thrust. The first rocket-powered SpaceShipTwo flight is now expected in 2013.

Editor's Note: This story was corrected to reflected the latest launch target for SpaceX's next Dragon cargo ship bound for the International Space Station. The Dragon flight will launch in March 2013, not May, according to SpaceX.

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Contributing writer

Rob Coppinger is a veteran aerospace writer whose work has appeared in Flight International, on the BBC, in The Engineer, Live Science, the Aviation Week Network and other publications. He has covered a wide range of subjects from aviation and aerospace technology to space exploration, information technology and engineering. In September 2021, Rob became the editor of SpaceFlight Magazine, a publication by the British Interplanetary Society. He is based in France. You can follow Rob's latest space project via Twitter.