Honestly, at the beginning of 2015, I did not think the year could possibly be as interesting as 2014 when it came to the launch sector. I thought there was a possibility SpaceX would achieve some major milestones from its list of goals for the year – maybe recover a first stage, maybe launch a Falcon 9 Heavy, maybe double their flight rate – but probably only one or two of them. I never would have guessed that 2015 could have the same roller coaster ride of ups and downs of 2014, which had rocket launches, rocket explosions, and political tension. Surprisingly, not only did 2015 have me on the edge of my seat like 2014, it surprised me and almost everyone else with some crazy twists and turns.
Part II – Rockets
Let’s recap where we were at the end of 2014: SpaceX had just wrapped up a reasonably successful year with 6 flights and no failures, which was twice the number of flights they had in 2013. The debate over the RD-180 engine was still ongoing but had calmed down somewhat with a congressional budget provision for the US to start working on a homegrown replacement. In the meantime, ULA would be allowed to continue using RD-180s to a limited extent. The biggest event of course was the spectacular explosion of an Orbital Sciences Antares rocket on its way to the ISS. Really the story had all eyes on – and are we really surprised? – SpaceX. With Orbital Sciences grounded and ULA under heat for using imported Russian engines, SpaceX was here to save the day.
And SpaceX certainly got off to a roaring start in 2015. They launched the first rocket of the year, which certainly served to make a point, and from there on averaged one Falcon 9 launch per month through June. During two of those launches in January and April they thrilled everybody with their so close rocket landing attempts. I have to repost the videos again below because they are so awesome.
Close, but no cigar. This time. https://t.co/JowUE6a1D7
— SpaceX (@SpaceX) January 16, 2015
Meanwhile, while all that fun was going on, the US Air Force granted SpaceX certification for military payloads and SpaceX conducted a launchpad abort test with their Dragon V2 capsule. Things were looking pretty good for the (not so) New Space company. But then this happened during their CRS-7 launch to ISS, their 6th of the year:
Suddenly, things completely changed. Adding another layer to the story, a Russian Progress resupply flight to the ISS had also been lost in late May, after which some people had been saying “good thing we have a SpaceX flight coming up.” Not only was the future of SpaceX’s manifest and Falcon 9 rocket in question, there were serious questions about the logistics chain to the ISS. Three of the vital cargo rockets were grounded, with only the Japanese HTV unaffected.
Thankfully, one of the things the Russians are really good at is rebounding from launch failures, and they flew a successful Progress mission to ISS only a few days after the SpaceX explosion. Regardless, 3 of the last 8 unmanned flights to ISS had been lost, an unprecedented statistic.
Orbital ATK (the new name of Orbital Sciences after a merger early in the year) had already announced plans for their return to flight way back in January. Surprisingly, their strategy would be to purchase launch vehicles from their competitors to fly their Cygnus freighter while they worked on a redesign of the Antares first stage. The return to flight would be on a ULA Atlas 5 sometime late in the year. The good news for all involved is that that launch went off without a hitch (after some weather delays) in mid-December. The Cygnus freighter known as “SS Deke Slayton” is happily berthed to the ISS as I write this.
As for SpaceX, all plans for a Falcon Heavy launch, a rocket landing, or a new record flight rate, were taking backseat to the job of figuring out why their rocket had disintegrated on them. Second priority was getting a return to flight scheduled ASAP to pick up their deep manifest (which was already stacked pretty deep coming into 2015). It came out very quickly that the mishap was caused by the failure of a strut, or a structural beam, holding a high pressure helium tank in place. Unfortunately, just because you know the cause of a failure doesn’t mean you know how long it will take to sort out the problem and get back to regular launches. For the next few months it was unclear to the public outside SpaceX if they could even return to flight within the calendar year.
Meanwhile, the rest of the world kept launching rockets. ULA in particular had a pretty good year with 12 launches and no failures. Even though ULA’s Atlas and Delta rockets are extremely successful and don’t really need replacing, they responded to pressures both from the government (which was saying stop using Russian engines) and SpaceX (who is threatening to change the launch industry entirely with reusability) and revealed plans for their new Vulcan rocket. The Vulcan is an ambitious new project which will take at least 5 years to complete. It will use a new American built liquid stage engine and aim to save money by recovering those engines after every launch. Their plan is kind of crazy, as it involves a helicopter. Here it is graphically:
Then in November ULA made space news headlines by not bidding on a GPS satellite contract from the DoD, essentially ceding the launch to SpaceX. ULA listed a couple of reasons they felt that it was not really worth their time to bid, including the Congressional mandate against them to not buy any more RD-180s from Russia. ULA was basically saying, we don’t have enough engines. John McCain in particular was not amused. McCain, who is strongly against the import of Russian rocket engines, feels that ULA has more than enough RD-180 engines already in stock without buying new ones from Russia. They simply need to allocate less engines for commercial and NASA launches and more to DoD payloads. The move was basically a bluff from ULA to get people talking, and it has yet to be seen if it will work.
Which brings us to the tail end of the year, with two of the biggest surprises still left. While everyone was busy talking about SpaceX, Orbital ATK, and ULA, Blue Origin came out of nowhere with a pretty spectacular flight demonstration of their New Shepard rocket. The secret launch occurred in their West Texas facility, reaching the edge of space before the capsule safely came back to Earth under parachute and the first stage touched down vertically under power.
On the face of it, it appears Blue Origin had swooped in and accomplished the first real first stage recovery after a functional rocket launch, right from under SpaceX’s nose. In reality, the technical challenge involved with Blue Origin’s feat is somewhat different than what SpaceX had been trying to do, as the below graphic illustrates. Blue Origin’s launch – while impressive – was suborbital. Meanwhile, SpaceX had been trying to bring back a first stage from a rocket that was actually putting payloads into orbit, which requires much higher velocity.
Regardless, Blue Origin is clearly the quiet dark horse in this story. They almost stole the limelight this year, at least that’s the way it looked before SpaceX stole it back just 9 days before the end of the year. Less than 6 months after their failure, SpaceX launched a Falcon 9 on December 22nd, placing a fleet of Orbcomm satellites into orbit and, to everyone’s amazement, successfully landing the first stage back at “Landing Zone 1″ at Cape Canaveral.
This made the mishap back in June look like small potatoes. SpaceX had just achieved one of those three big goals for the year. While there is still a lot of work for them to do to checkout the rocket and determine how much refurbishment would be needed for reflight, this was a major step towards their goal of reuse. Not only that, but being back on flight status puts them in a great posture going into 2016 ready to fly out a big part of their deep manifest. They also likely now have the focus and resources to get that first Falcon Heavy in the air this year.
2016 looks good for Orbital ATK too – with a second Cygnus flight on an Atlas 5 coming up quickly in March and then the maiden flight of their upgraded Antares rocket in May. Overall, the year ended on a high note for the launch industry, with many space fans pretty optimistic. Given how things were looking back in the summer, this year could have turned out quite differently. Losing a Progress cargo craft, which is the only source of fuel resupply and propulsive support for ISS, is always a big deal at NASA and it spins up contingency planning. Fortunately, we ended the year with not just Russia but everyone having returned to flight. Not only do we have a solid reliable supply chain re-established to ISS, lots to look forward to from SpaceX, and resumed orbital flights from Virginia, we are also getting tantalizingly close to the first test flights of the Dragon V2 and Boeing CST-100 manned spacecraft.
I had my heart in my throat for a bit this year, but ended up jumping up and down and cheering with everyone else on December 22nd. It was exciting and all, but after the last two years I’m ready for less drama, and more launches. Ad astra.