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When will regular people be able to go to space?

And, more urgently, why is Elon Musk tweeting about giant party balloons?

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A Tesla roadster with an astronaut dummy driving it, with Earth in the background
SpaceX launched a Tesla roadster with a dummy driver named Starman. The car launched from a Falcon Heavy rocket and is headed toward Mars.
SpaceX via Getty Images

By successfully launching the agency’s TESS satellite this week, SpaceX is now helping its longtime partner NASA search for planets beyond our solar system. As far as we know, the long game for Elon Musk’s space company is still helping Earthlings see what’s out there, too.

However, in that regard, SpaceX might need to be patient, says The Verge’s science reporter Loren Grush — at least until next year. On the latest episode of Too Embarrassed to Ask, Grush told Recode’s Kara Swisher that the historically nimble company will have to ease on the brakes if it wants to launch more than just cargo and satellites; while it originally planned to take people up in 2017, it probably won’t be flying people to space in any capacity until 2019 at the earliest, she said.

“NASA is very meticulous when it comes to how they iterate,” Grush said. “If you want to do a change [to a rocket], you have to run it by a person, who runs it by a person, who runs it by a person. With SpaceX, they were making new changes every day.”

“Now they’re really being put to the test because they’re developing this new technology to take astronauts [into space],” she added. “Obviously, safety is a concern whenever you launch a rocket, but when you put people on it, that’s when the stakes are super high.”

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On the new podcast, Grush also talked about the progress of SpaceX rival Blue Origin, which was founded by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. While Musk’s firm is looking to get people into orbit (and, eventually, to Mars), Blue Origin is preparing to start by selling tickets on “sub-orbital vehicles” — a short ride on a capsule attached to one of the company’s New Shepherd rockets that is expected to cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“When you get to space, the capsule and the rocket break apart, and the people float inside for four minutes,” Grush said. “So, you can have that moment of ‘A) I’m in space; B) I’m floating; and C) I can see the curvature of the Earth,’ which only a couple hundred people have done. And then the capsule and rocket come back down in separate pieces.”

Understanding the safety considerations of that re-entry process will also help you understand why SpaceX’s Musk was tweeting recently about bringing that company’s rockets back down to Earth “using a giant party balloon.” This silly-sounding imagery is “actually based in very solid science” and could prevent a vehicle’s components from breaking up in the sky, Grush said.

“I’ve learned that his joke-tweets are never jokes,” she said of Musk. “Unless he’s talking about Tesla tequila.”

“Whenever you re-enter the earth’s atmosphere, you come in really fast and hot,” Grush added. “That’s why the capsules are these teardrop designs, because you want to spread out the heat when you’re coming in towards the Earth. If you inflated this larger structure, you could have a bigger surface area which would make you slow down not as fast.”

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