Science fiction has a plethora of ideas about what happened in the past and what to expect from the future. Unfortunately, not all of those ideas are exactly plausible in reality. In Suspension of Disbelief, we’ll take a look at the best ideas from sci-fi movies, books, comics and videogames to see where (and if) they intersect with the real world.
The golden era of space exploration is over, but that doesn’t mean the spaceship is a relic of the past. Since the Space Race started in the 1960s, government agencies have led the way in space exploration, but over the last decade or so it has become economically viable for private corporations to develop their own spaceflight technologies. While NASA is working on a replacement to the Space Shuttle, private corporations are building planes, rockets, and ships that will go into space, achieve orbit, and maybe even go to Mars.
We covered the history of real-life spaceships, but humanity’s progress isn’t stopping there. Click through the gallery to see the spaceships that are in our near future, some of which we may even ride on in a few years.
Hailing from upstate New York, Cameron Wade is a freelance writer interested in movies, videogames, comic books and more. You can find his work at protogeektheblog.wordpress.com.
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Blue Origin's New Shepard
Blue Origin's motto is "step by step, ferociously," and their New Shepard rocket is a testament to the philosophy of starting small and working towards something big. New Shepard a rocket and capsule system that, like its namesake Alan Shepard, the first American in space, goes into space but doesn't go into orbit. Instead, it's designed to take tourists and scientists into space for a few minutes before returning to Earth. Blue Origin plans to make the short trips financially viable by launching them frequently with the use of a reusable rocket that lands standing up in the same position it takes off from. New Shepard has had a number of successful uncrewed test flights, including crossing the 62-mile boundary into space and landing back down on Earth. Its first crewed tests are planned for mid-2017 with commercial passenger flights to follow in 2018, likely costing a couple hundred thousand dollars per ticket. With the experience and data from these flights, Blue Origin is building up to making an orbital spacecraft called New Glenn, named for John Glenn, the first American in orbit. New Glenn will be able to launch satellites, carry humans into space, and then return to Earth to be reused, saving on costs and resources. New Glenn is still in the design phase, but Blue Origin plans to have it flying before 2020.
Image via Blue Origin
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Virgin Galactic's VSS Unity
Virgin Galactic is taking a similar route to Blue Origin. Like New Shepard, Virgin's VSS Unity won't achieve orbit and is designed primarily for tourists. But, unlike New Shepard, VSS Unity is a spaceplane, not a rocket. It attaches to a large mothership called WhiteKnightTwo which takes off from a runway like an airplane carrying it up to 50,000 feet. Then, Unity detaches from WhiteKnightTwo and starts burning its rocket engine for 70 seconds, breaking the sound barrier in just 8 seconds. The goal is for Unity to reach about 68 miles (crossing the boundary into outer space) going a speed of 2,600 mph. It will stay in space for a few minutes before returning to Earth by gliding to a runway, similar to how the Space Shuttle used to land. Unity performed its first test glide flight in December 2016 and will have its first powered test flight in 2017 (pictured is its predecessor VSS Enterprise which crashed in 2014). For a two-and-a-half hour flight and a few minutes in space, a ticket will cost $250,000. That may seem steep but Virgin has already had hundreds of people put down deposits to book their flights.
Image via MarsScientific.com/Virgin Galactic
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Sierra Nevada's Dream Chaser Space System
Sierra Nevada Corporation has been building space technologies, systems, and satellites for decades, but 10 years ago they finally began developing their own spacecraft. The Dream Chaser is referred to as a space utility vehicle, meaning that it's designed exclusively for orbital missions like docking with the International Space Station, deploying satellites, performing scientific experiments, cleaning up space debris and more. It comes in two variants: the Cargo System, an uncrewed, black ship meant for carrying supplies and satellites into space, and the Space System, which is white and can hold a crew of up to seven. The Dream Chaser will be launched into orbit on an Atlas V rocket and land by gliding onto a runway. Each Dream Chaser will be reusable, capable of making up to 15 trips. It's about a quarter of the length of the Space Shuttle, only 30 feet long, because NASA no longer needs the extra space to carry large sections of the ISS into orbit. In 2013, it underwent an uncrewed test of its glide and landing capabilities, the first time such tests had been done since the Space Shuttle Enterprise in 1977. Based on Sierra Nevada's current contract with NASA, the Dream Chaser won't fly until 2019 at the earliest.
Image via Sierra Nevada Corporation/NASA
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Boeing's CST-100 Starliner
NASA's Commercial Crew Development program gives funds to space travel companies to develop their own spacecrafts which would then be eligible for a contract to transport NASA astronauts to the ISS. One of the winners was Boeing's CST-100 Starliner. The Starliner is a capsule craft similar to the classic Apollo modules. It has a diameter of 15 feet and can support a crew of up to seven, depending on how much cargo it's carrying. Although its main mission is to shepherd astronauts between the Earth and the ISS, it will be capable of remaining in orbit for up to seven months. It also comes with wifi. The Starliner will launch on an Atlas V rocket, but, uniquely, it won't touchdown in water like Apollo or glide down to a runway like the Space Shuttle or Dream Chaser. Instead, it will parachute to the ground and deploy airbags along its underside to cushion its landing. It'll be the first American space capsule to touchdown on land, even though that's been the Russian standard since the beginning of the Space Race. The Starliner is currently undergoing testing in order to pass NASA's certification and will have its first uncrewed test flight in June of 2018. That August it will perform a crewed test flight, and, assuming all goes well, it will carry out its first mission in December 2018 at the earliest. It will be the first commercial spacecraft used by NASA to carry its astronauts.
Image via Boeing
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SpaceX's Dragon v2
SpaceX's Dragon capsule became the first commercial spacecraft to dock with the International Space Station when it did so in 2012, but all it carried were supplies and equipment. Dragon is remotely piloted from Earth and doesn't carry astronauts, but SpaceX is currently working on a second version that will do just that. Dragon v2, or Crew Dragon, is the other winner of NASA's Commercial Crew Development program and will carry up to seven astronauts to the ISS and possibly even to the Moon. When it returns to Earth, instead of parachuting to the ground or gliding down to a runway, Dragon v2 will use rockets on its underside (the same ones it uses to break free of the atmosphere during launch) to slow its descent and then deploy landing feet to touchdown. According to SpaceX, it will be able to land with the "precision of a helicopter." Currently, Dragon v2 is in the testing phase, aiming for its first uncrewed orbital flight in November of 2017 and its first crewed mission to the ISS in May 2018. In February of 2017, it was announced that two unnamed individuals had paid a substantial deposit to travel in Dragon v2 in a trip around the Moon scheduled for late 2018, likely making it the first spacecraft to carry private citizens out of Earth's orbit.
Image via SpaceX
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While the future of space travel looks to be dominated by private space companies, NASA is still working on their own new spaceship to replace the now-retired Space Shuttle. The Space Launch System and Orion spacecraft are being modeled after the Apollo program while incorporating all of the technological, engineering, and design improvements made over the 45 of years since Apollo ended. Unlike NASA's previous space vehicle, the Space Shuttle, Orion is designed to leave Earth's orbit with future missions planned to land on asteroids and on Mars. Orion completed its first uncrewed orbital test in December of 2014, orbiting the Earth twice, 3,600 miles above the surface, and reaching speeds of 20,000 mph during reentry. The flight tested the ship's heat shield, launch abort system, navigation, guidance, radiation shielding, and reentry procedure. Once the SLS rocket is complete, Orion will perform another uncrewed mission sometime in late 2018, this time to orbit around the Moon. A crewed test will repeat that flight path in 2021 at the earliest, with the possibility of being the first time humanity returns to the Moon since the final Apollo mission in 1972. Farther into the future, NASA plans to send Orion to an asteroid in the 2020s and then to Mars in the 2030s.
Image via NASA
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SpaceX's Interplanetary Transport System
Easily the most ambitious spaceship on this list, the Interplanetary Transport System is SpaceX's plan to send people to Mars as early as 2025. The ITS is comprised of three crafts: a rocket, a fuel tanker, and a spaceship. The rocket and the spaceship (on the right) will launch into orbit around Earth. The rocket will reenter the atmosphere and vertically land back on the launchpad where it'll refuel and, within the same day, be loaded with the tanker (on the left). The tanker will then be launched into orbit to dock with the ship, transfer over 800,000 pounds of fuel to it, and then return back to the launchpad. The spaceship will require up to five tankers' worth of fuel to prepare for its two-month, 62,000 mph journey to Mars. Starting in 2018, seven years before the the ITS launches, SpaceX will begin send uncrewed Dragon ships to Mars every two years to test entry procedures and deposit equipment including the "architecture that would enable the creation of a self-sustaining city on Mars." The goal is to build a city on Mars with tens of thousands of people. Once established on Mars, ITS ships would then be able to mine asteroids or explore (and maybe even colonize) the moons of Jupiter and Saturn. The Interplanetary Transport System is still in the design stage with a total projected cost of at least $10 billion by the time it's complete and test flights scheduled for 2020 at the earliest. SpaceX and its CEO Elon Musk are known for promising big results in short time spans, but the ITS is within the realm of possibility. Even if it doesn't come as soon as SpaceX is saying it will, the Interplanetary Transport System could completely change the course of human history.
Image via SpaceX/YouTube