Archive for the ‘Virgin Orbit’ Category

2017 in Review

The year of 2017 will be remembered by most of my readers for reasons totally unrelated to spaceflight. It was a tumultuous year with political turmoil, social strife, acts of violence, and devastating natural disasters. Unfortunately, it is these negative stories that tend to embed themselves in our memories as we witness the arc of history unfold. Even when we zoom out to a wide angle view of decades or centuries, it is violence and conflict we remember. What were the biggest events of the 20th century? Wars, economic collapse, threats of annihilation, and social strife. I don’t have to remind you though, as a space fan, that most of the world shares at least one bright memory of the difficult last century: Apollo 11.

In a similar way, I’m hoping that through all the difficult times we face as a society in the 21st century, that spaceflight can be one of those bright spots that is a source of optimism and hope (although, surely not the only source). As Bill Nye is fond of saying “space brings out the best in us.” Spaceflight is an outlet for positive creative energy. Spaceflight applies technology in new ways, often leading to new inventions and sometimes entire industries. Spaceflight allows us to conduct important research that applies directly to the interests and concerns of everyone on Earth – from medical studies onboard the ISS to weather and climate satellites to space telescopes looking out for Near Earth Objects (NEOs).

Spaceflight is a bipartisan endeavor universally loved by young and old alike because it taps into something innate in us. Whether it’s the love of exploration and discovery or just the appeal of astronauts as wholesome hometown heroes, space has always been an easy sell to the public. Very few other uses of time and money are as generally noncontroversial (although we like to argue over specifics). There was a chance for space to get swallowed up in the political turmoil in Washington, DC this past year. Luckily, that didn’t happen. Instead, the space industry had another great year with very few setbacks.

Some readers may take issue with that statement and want to argue that it was not a great year for space. After all, NASA still has no confirmed administrator, XCOR went out of business, several programs slipped their launch dates (JWST, SLS, Orion), and Cassini ended its mission at Saturn (leaving us with a dearth of outer solar system probes). But if we look at those space programs or missions that are active and flying, we see lots of success in 2017 with few failures. The loss of Cassini should probably be spun as a positive story anyway – the planned retirement of a historic program of exploration – 13 years in Saturn orbit.

Other than the few things I listed above, the only other major setbacks of 2017 would be the five complete launch failures shown below (there were one or two other partial failures). Both Japan and New Zealand (Rocket Lab) lost rockets on their maiden launch. India, China, and Russia all lost one rocket each. The two remaining major space powers – ESA and USA – did not have any launch failures.

Country Vehicle Payload Maiden launch?
Japan SS-520 nanosat Yes
New Zealand Electron none Yes
China Long March 5 Comm sat No
India PSLV Nav sat No
Russia Soyuz Various No

2017 actually had the lowest launch success rate since 2011 and yet overall it felt like a very successful year (launch success was about 93% instead of the usual 95%). A few things contribute to this being a good year for rockets. First of course, is that 2 of the failures were test launches. If you remove them from the accounting, we are back at 95%. The second big reason is that none of the other failures led to an interruption in logistical support for the ISS. From 2014 to 2016, ISS operations lost four uncrewed logistical support rockets. After a string that bad, the last 13 months of successful flights (ten missions in all) feels positively blissful.

The third, and maybe most important reason this was a great year for rockets, was that SpaceX had no failures this year. In 2015 they lost an ISS resupply mission on ascent. In 2016 their year was cut short at 8 missions when a rocket blew up on pad 40 at Cape Canaveral. The backlog of customers was looming for a long 6 months while SpaceX worked on recovering from that latest failure. Then, last January they returned to flight with a launch for Iridium and haven’t let up since. Their accomplishments include: no launch failures, a record 18 launches, a record 15 first stage recoveries, and first reuse of a first stage. The other American providers, ULA and Orbital ATK, also had good years with 8 and 3 successful launches each with no failures.

As long as we get to space with chemically propelled rockets, everything hinges on how well our rockets are flying. We can’t really do a retrospective on the year without looking at these numbers. This has always been true, but what is particularly poignant from 2017 are those 18 launches from SpaceX. That’s fully 20% of all launches. Not only that, but they flew a lot of important missions. In 2017 alone they launched four times to the ISS and at least twice for the US military. In 2018 they plan to launch several times for NASA, including to the ISS as well as the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS). At this point, it’s pretty clear that when SpaceX has a good year, the space industry has a good year.

In addition to the 10 successful cargo launches to the ISS this year, there were also 4 flawless crew launches to keep the record of 17 straight years of crewed operations going. NASA stepped up to 4 full-time USOS crew (which includes Japanese, Canadian, and European flyers), enabling even more research. NASA is now in full utilization mode of the ISS. Hundreds of experiments are being conducted each year – from physical science to medicine to biology to botany to astronomy – and each SpaceX Dragon brings up more externally mounted autonomous payloads such as last year’s aerosol monitoring payload (SAGE III) and a neutron star telescope (NICER), among others. The ISS has become an important platform for efficiently deploying small satellites, with dozens launched from the Japanese robotic arm last year.

The ISS looks well positioned for the future, with a healthy manifest of crew and payloads coming up as well as the exciting prospect of even larger crews, once Boeing and SpaceX successfully demonstrate flight of their new crew transportation systems. In the meantime, important maintenance has been ongoing to ensure that ISS can operate well into the 2020s. Early in the year a Japanese cargo vehicle, an HTV, brought up a new set of lithium ion batteries, the first in a series of battery replacements over the next few years that will keep the solar power flowing. The batteries were replaced in a series of 3 spacewalks last January. Ultimately, ISS astronauts would complete 10 successful spacewalks last year with no major issues.

The year in ISS was underscored by Peggy Whitson’s amazing flight. At 57 years old, Whitson now holds the record for most days in space of any American astronaut in history (665) as well as an impressive 60 hours of EVA time that puts her number 3 all time behind Anatoly Solovyev and Michael Lopez-Alegria. Peggy’s 289 day mission was almost entirely unprecedented. Not only was Whitson praised as a “space ninja” by her crew mates for her work onboard the ISS, but even made a wide impression outside of NASA and received a Woman of the Year award from Glamour Magazine. The crews aboard the ISS continue to bring the wonder of spaceflight home to us through their social media engagement and excellent educational outreach events. If you aren’t checking this link for the latest pictures from space every morning, you are missing out on a little bit of daily wonder.

The ISS is of course not the only game in town. NASA has very active planetary science and astronomy programs, not to mention similar missions from ESA, JAXA, and other agencies. 2017 saw no new launches of solar system probes (that’s right, zero) but many active missions made progress and the only “failure” being the end of Cassini. Mars is incredibly active with 8 missions. Two NASA rovers, Opportunity and Curiosity, are providing a wealth of insights into the wet history of Mars. The most exciting discoveries from those robots are likely yet to come. Two asteroid sample return missions, OSIRIS-Rex from NASA and Hayabusa 2 from JAXA, remain in interplanetary cruise phase. New Horizons is on its way to visit a Kuiper Belt Object next year, Juno remains in orbit at Jupiter, and Dawn continues to explore the largest asteroid, Ceres.

Some of these missions we heard big news from this year, such as Cassini’s analysis of the ocean plumes from icy Enceladus. We also gained a new understanding of the winds and storms of Jupiter from Juno. Not to mention the absolutely stunning images we have been treated to from JunoCam.

But overall, space exploration, especially planetary exploration, is a long game. Spacecraft take years to reach their targets and then spend sometimes months or years (at least for orbiters and rovers) slowly collecting the data they need to learn something new from our mysterious solar system neighbors. So there were no splashy launches or touchdowns in 2017. Instead, the hard work from years past continued to pay off with well built spacecraft going about their daily business. 2017 was a great year in this respect. Years like this lay the foundation for big discoveries to come; it’s just that we have to wait a bit for the papers to be published. The only real downer this year is probably that Curiosity’s drill is still out of commission.

There is of course, a lot more to cover. Spaceflight is a big industry that goes far beyond just the ISS or big planetary exploration missions. New Space, for instance, had a lot of interesting updates this year. In addition to Rocket Lab making their first launch attempt, Blue Origin demonstrated further progress on their New Shepard vehicle as well as their BE-4 engine, Virgin Orbit moved a few steps closer to their first test launch with several engine tests, and Sierra Nevada conducted their first free glide flight in several years.

Then there’s astronomy. So much is happening in astronomy these days that it deserves a lengthy retrospective all its own. Here are some highlights of last year in a quick paragraph. Many interesting exoplanets were discovered, such as the fascinating Trappist-1 system with three potentially habitable planets. But Ross 128b is my favorite potentially habitable planet, because it is less than 11 light years from Earth. Let’s go! Other exciting developments in astronomy included more neutron star collisions discovered via gravitational waves and also the fascinating cigar shaped something known as ‘Omuamua which flew through our solar system from somewhere this past October (more to come on this we hope).

As we look to the future, we can see that there is a lot to learn. The ISS has years of science to conduct – managers are furiously looking for more ways to maximize timelines and target the most likely breakthroughs. Meanwhile there are dozens of worlds here at home in our solar system yet to explore, not just with probes already launched but many to come (launches to Mars, Mercury, and the Moon in 2018). And most intriguing of all, there are thousands upon thousands of worlds to explore out there, beyond our own star.

The more we look, the more we find. And the more we find, the more questions we think to ask. This is the optimistic and worldview expanding impact of science. We are losing the explorers of the last century – Apollo legends Gene Cernan, Dick Gordon, and John Young all passed away in their 80s in the past year. But it’s hard not to see the vast opportunity available to the current generation of explorers in this century. Perhaps some day we will look back at this time period as a changing of the guard. It is hard to say without the benefit of hindsight. If nothing else, for those of us that are inspired by scientific discovery and exploration, 2017 showed us that spaceflight can be – and probably always will be – a candle in the dark.

 Previous year in review posts

2015 year in review: Part I and Part II.

2014 year in review: Part I and Part II.

2013 year in review: Part I and Part II.