How Human Space Launches Have Diversified

A plethora of new countries and private companies are getting in on the quest to send people to orbit

Credit: Katie Peek

We are entering a new era in sending people beyond Earth. After the Apollo moon program, U.S. space shuttles and Russian Soyuz flights were the only game in town. Those ferries carried astronauts to and from low-Earth orbit, where space stations Skylab, Mir and the ISS hung around the planet. Today there is far more diversity among launchers and destinations, says astronomer Jonathan C. McDowell of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. SpaceX, Boeing and other private companies are getting off the ground and plan both astronaut flights and space tourism. Deep-space travel is again on NASA’s horizon. “For a long time, U.S. human spaceflight was in postshuttle doldrums,” McDowell says. “That’s definitely over now.”

Time line shows years, space agencies, vessel classes and destinations of all crewed space launches from 1961 to 2020.  - saw0621Gsci31 d 1  - How Human Space Launches Have Diversified

Credit: Katie Peek; Source: “JSR Launch Logs,” by Jonathan C. McDowell (; DATA as of April 2, 2021

This article was originally published with the title “The New Final Frontier” in Scientific American 324, 6, 84 (June 2021)


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