- The first drop test of Virgin Galactic's suborbital spaceship.
- The announcement of a new Caribbean spaceport in Curacao for XCOR Aerospace's planned suborbital Lynx rocket plane.
- The in-flight shutdown and restart of vertical takeoff/landing rockets by Masten Space Systems and Armadillo Aerospace.
- The announcement of Bigelow Aerospace of several large expandable space exploration vehicles and deals made with several countries to lease them.
- And most significantly, the successful first flights of Space Exploration Technologies' (SpaceX) Falcon 9 launcher and the pressurized Dragon capsule.
Early in the New Year, I expect both Masten and Armadillo to start flying new systems with supersonic aeroshells that will let them achieve unprecedented speeds and altitudes for vehicles that land vertically with rockets.
They have previously only flown to a few thousand feet, but the new versions will fly all the way into space (a little more than 60 miles altitude) from government-approved ranges. The vehicles will take off vertically, accelerate until they have enough velocity to achieve the desired altitude, shut down the rocket engine, reenter the atmosphere (if they leave it), and relight the engine to come to a gentle vertical landing.
In the case of Armadillo, these vehicles will be capable of carrying passengers, after an extensive test-flight program.
Also, while I don't necessarily predict it, I wouldn't be surprised if a vehicle or two is lost in these tests -- that is, after all, how innovative companies like these learn, and improve, and their cost structure makes such failures affordable and much less costly than the ponderous and risk-averse NASA approach of over-analysis and few actual flights.
In terms of horizontal-landing suborbitals, XCOR will begin actual construction of the Lynx, a two-seat vehicle that takes off from and lands on a runway, and perhaps start flight testing it later in the year in Mojave, Calif., starting with taxi tests, then runway rolls, takeoffs and once arounds, all under pure rocket power, slowly expanding its envelope with the eventual aim of getting to space.
Also in Mojave, expect more drop tests of Virgin Galactic's seven-passenger SpaceShipTwo, perhaps with powered flight later in the year as its hybrid (solid fuel, liquid oxidizer) rocket engine completes its development and is installed in the vehicle.
But expect SpaceX to be the star of the show next year, as it was this year, with actual orbital activities, a much greater challenge.
The original plan for the Dragon's next flights, once it has its solar panels installed, had been to do one longer duration mission that would match orbits with the International Space Station, but not get close, followed by a second one that would actually berth and dock to it, demonstrating the Dragon's ability to deliver and return cargo to and from the station.
The success of the Dragon flight last December augurs well for SpaceX's request to combine their next two flight objectives into one, actually going all the way to the ISS on the next flight, saving both time and money.
At that point, all that will be needed is an improved life-support system (already under development) to allow the Dragon to be used as an emergency seven-person lifeboat for the ISS (the current Russian lifeboat, the Soyuz, can only support three). All it will lack to serve as a crew transport on top of the Falcon 9 will be a launch escape system, which could be available within two or three years, including test flights, for much less than the cost of a single Shuttle flight.
Expect as well continued progress from other aspirants to provide crew transportation services to NASA, such as Boeing with their CST capsule, and Sierra Nevada Corporation's Dream Chaser space plane, both of which are designed to launch on an Atlas V.
They and others recently submitted proposals to follow on from their current work on these systems, and NASA is expected to make an announcement of winners in March.
The only fly in the ointment of progress on this front is Congress. It has the potential to not only cut NASA's budget when the current continuing resolution runs out in March, but cut it in a way that cripples this new industry -- underfunding it while feeding billions into an unneeded heavy-lift rocket (that will serve only to protect some jobs in Utah and Alabama).
On that front, I make no predictions, but hope that the tea parties, including the ones in those states, will continue to crack the whip on them.
Rand Simberg is an aerospace engineer, space and business consultant and serial entrepreneur. He blogs at Transterrestrial Musings.
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