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SpaceX's astronaut launch debut won't be the first human spaceflight from American soil since 2011

Virgin Galactic's VSS Unity spaceliner captured this view of Earth during the vehicle's first trip to space, on Dec. 13, 2018.
Virgin Galactic's VSS Unity spaceliner captured this view of Earth during the vehicle's first trip to space, on Dec. 13, 2018. (Image credit: Virgin Galactic)

SpaceX's first crewed mission, which is set to launch on Wednesday (May 27), will be epic and historic. But, despite what you may have heard, it doesn't mark the return of human spaceflight to American soil.

The suborbital space tourism company Virgin Galactic notched that milestone on Dec. 13, 2018, during a rocket-powered test flight of its VSS Unity space plane. Pilots Mark Stucky and C.J. Sturckow took Unity to a maximum altitude of 51.40 miles (82.72 kilometers) on that mission, which took off from and landed at Mojave Air and Space Port in the Southern California desert.

And on Feb. 22, 2019, pilots Dave Mackay and Mike Masucci and Virgin Galactic's chief astronaut instructor, Beth Moses, went 55.9 miles (89.9 km) above Earth's surface aboard Unity on another test flight out of Mojave.

Related: Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity spaceliner in pictures

All five fliers were therefore awarded commercial astronaut wings by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, which deems space to begin at an altitude of 50 miles (80 km). And many other agencies and organizations share that standard, including NASA and the U.S. Air Force. 

(The 50-mile mark isn't universally accepted, however. For example, the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, the ruling body on world air sports, puts the boundary at an altitude of 62 miles, or 100 km.)

But VSS Unity is a suborbital vehicle, so it did not circle our planet. No person has launched to Earth orbit from the United States since July 8, 2011, when the space shuttle Atlantis lifted off on the final mission of NASA's venerable shuttle program. Since then, American astronauts have relied completely on Russian Soyuz rockets and spacecraft, which launch from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, to get to and from the International Space Station (ISS).

The upcoming SpaceX mission, called Demo-2, will break that stranglehold, if all goes according to plan. 

Demo-2 will send NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to and from the ISS aboard a Crew Dragon capsule, which will launch atop a Falcon 9 rocket from Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

And Demo-2 is not a one-off. As its name suggests, the mission is a demonstration, a test flight designed to fully validate Crew Dragon and the Falcon 9 for crewed flight. SpaceX holds a $2.6 billion contract to fly six operational crewed missions to and from the ISS for NASA, and the first of those is expected to lift off later this year if all goes well with Demo-2.

Boeing holds a similar commercial crew deal with NASA, which the company plans to fulfill using a capsule called CST-100 Starliner. But Starliner isn't ready to fly astronauts yet; the spacecraft still needs to ace an uncrewed visit to the ISS, a milestone Crew Dragon achieved in March 2019. (Starliner launched on such a mission this past December but suffered several glitches and was unable to meet up with the orbiting lab as planned.)

Virgin Galactic is gearing up for commercial operations as well, by the way. The company has moved the six-passenger Unity — one of a planned fleet of SpaceShipTwo space planes — to its commercial hub, New Mexico's Spaceport America, and is wrapping up the vehicle's test campaign. 

More than 600 people have booked seats aboard SpaceShipTwo, which will offer passengers a few minutes of weightlessness and great views of Earth against the blackness of space, Virgin Galactic representatives have said.

And Virgin Galactic isn't the only company developing a passenger-carrying suborbital system. Blue Origin, which is run by founder Jeff Bezos, has launched numerous uncrewed test flights of its New Shepard vehicle and could begin commercial operations soon as well.

Mike Wall is the author of "Out There (opens in new tab)" (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook

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Michael Wall is a Senior Space Writer with (opens in new tab) and joined the team in 2010. He primarily covers exoplanets, spaceflight and military space, but has been known to dabble in the space art beat. His book about the search for alien life, "Out There," was published on Nov. 13, 2018. Before becoming a science writer, Michael worked as a herpetologist and wildlife biologist. He has a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology from the University of Sydney, Australia, a bachelor's degree from the University of Arizona, and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. To find out what his latest project is, you can follow Michael on Twitter.

  • p3orion
    "SpaceX's first crewed mission... doesn't mark the return of human spaceflight to American soil. The suborbital space tourism company Virgin Galactic notched that milestone..."
    Jeeze, Wall, are you on Branson's PR staff or something? Yes, the VSS Unity is technologically innovative, and I hope the space tourist business does well. And yes it's fun to watch, and I would have given my right arm to be one of the pilots. I bet it was a helluva ride, but it qualified as "manned space flight" only if you use NASA's current dumbed-down 50-miles-high definition of space. Even so, it barely cleared that low bar; Alan Shepard went TWICE as high almost SIXTY YEARS ago.

    To compare the Virgin Galactic hop with SpaceX's upcoming manned orbital mission, and somehow claim that VG "beat" SpaceX to manned U.S. space flight, is just pathetic. It reminds me of when in 1965 the Soviets, watching the astronauts of America's Gemini 6A and Gemini 7 maneuver into orbital formation flight only six feet apart, whined to anyone who would listen that the USSR had achieved the first "rendezvous" three years earlier... though Vostok 3 and 4 had never come closer than about four miles.

    To make a comparison, things have got to be at least comparable, and the Virgin Galactic "joy ride" just isn't in the same class as a working, usable man-rated space craft. You might as well compare Musk's SpaceX to Disney's Space Mountain.
  • jdb2
    This article makes a glaringly invalid comparison when it says that "But, despite what you may have heard, it doesn't mark the return of human spaceflight to American soil." w.r.t. SpaceX's upcoming crewed space flight to the I.S.S. Specifically, Virgin Galactic's "human spaceflight" program is not in any way designed to take humans into orbital space, where the I.S.S. resides at about 254 miles -- it is only designed to take "space tourists" up to around 50+ miles for several minutes, which is far short of what "human spaceflight" is usually referred to.

    Virgin Galactic's "human spaceflight program" seems to me just to be a gimmick for the rich and famous. It's basically the 1%'s version of a theme park ride. SpaceX, on the other hand, is actually sending humans into orbital space and to the I.S.S., which is much ( orders of a magnitude ) harder than getting up to the edge of space and then gliding back down to earth.

    It seems that the author of the article doesn't understand the above differences and just conflates "human spaceflight" with "getting to the edge of space", or, if the author does understand the differences, then he decided to equate what Virgin Galactic and SpaceX are doing just for the sensationalist hype.

    Utter tripe.

  • RussLucas3
    100% Agree with P3 and jdb2. No astronaut patch for VG tourists. An "I survived a VG Spaceship flight" patch would be more appropriate.
  • DarkHawke
    Picky, picky, picky. Did someone not meet their article quota this month?
  • Pallen
    I created an account after years of reading articles here, just to say to say: "If touch my toes in the ocean I can say I have been to the sea, but I can't say I have been in the sea."
  • Scuffers
    Only if you fail to make the Kármán line but then re-define it as 80km (when it's actually 100km)
  • Torbjorn Larsson
    The historical US Air Force (and so NASA) peculiar definition of space (80 km) was invented so 8 instead of 1 of their X15 pilots could claim to be an astronaut ], in effect making sure the program was a space program. But now US has introduced an orbital Space Force, and in any case common usage is the Kármán line (100 km) definition.

    You can as well call Blue Origins oversize sounding rockets for spacecrafts*, or climbers that have made Mount Everest and other 8.5 km peaks astronauts since they have ascended Earth atmosphere scale height (ascended to 1/e or ~1/3 of surface pressure) , ]. Reversely ISS crews have only ascended a small part of Earth gravity well (ascended to ~ 2/3 or 1-1/e of surface gravity); the orbital definition is a practical one in which case the Kármán line is optimistic with a factor 2 ].

    *That said, I think most people will call Blue Origin's suborbital passenger astronauts, while mostly Virgin Galactic's passengers will call themselves astronauts.
  • Scuffers
    Yup, a classic case of if you can't meet the goal, just move the goalposts.

    Shame really, as the X-15 did pass the 100km line twice.
  • p3orion
    Torbjorn Larsson said:
    I think most people will call Blue Origin's suborbital passenger astronauts, while mostly Virgin Galactic's passengers will call themselves astronauts.

    Mostly? Every damn one will call himself an astronaut! Then again, if you pay six figures of your own money for a rocket ride, you've probably bought the right to call yourself whatever you want. Just don't ask ME to agree.