For SpaceX, 2016 ended with a bang. And a fireball. But with January’s successful Falcon 9 launch and landing, SpaceX came roaring back in 2017. For SpaceX and other launch providers, this year promises to be a critical year in human spaceflight, even though no humans will be flying on the most critical missions. SpaceX’s return to flight kicked off a year of potential milestones. Also slated for 2017 are the first use of a “used” Falcon 9 booster, the first flight of Falcon Heavy and an in-flight abort test for its Dragon V2 spaceship.
As SpaceX CEO Elon Musk outlined during his talk at the International Astronautical Congress late last year, full reusability will be essential to SpaceX’s larger plans of sending humans to Mars. The first milestone—the safe return of a stage 1 booster—is starting to seem routine. Despite SpaceX’s four month absence from flight, they rolled out with a live feed from the booster, re-entering Earth’s atmosphere, deploying its grid fins, and burning backwards to soften its descent. Making it look easy, the booster nestled gently into the grasp of “Just Read the Instructions”—SpaceX’s Pacific-based drone ship.
Falcon 9 first stage lands on LZ-1. Credit: SpaceX
SpaceX has safely landed eight rockets, but late this month they’ll make their first attempt to re-fly one of those stage 1 boosters, delivering a payload for SES. The first flight of Falcon Heavy, now expected in the spring, promises to be a media bonanza. The rocket will be the most powerful to fly since the Saturn V (The UpGoerFive, in XKCD-speak), which last slipped the surly bonds of Earth in 1973. The demonstration flight is significant, as the first piece of hardware likely to make up SpaceX’s larger vision for human flights to Mars. SpaceX had previously committed to an unmanned Dragon flight to Mars departing Earth in 2018 but recently postponed that launch until 2020.
Most importantly, however, is the planned in-flight abort test for Dragon V2. The capability to be tested—required to save the lives of astronauts should something go wrong upon launch—is essential for SpaceX to proceed with efforts to ferry crew to the International Space Station. NASA has scheduled the first human flight of Falcon 9 in 2018, but again it is hard to imagine how that date would be met if the in-flight abort test failed to meet expectations.
NASA’s Orion spacecraft will carry astronauts further into space than ever before using a module based on Europe’s Automated Transfer Vehicles (ATV). Credit: NASA
For NASA, 2017 will feature major milestones for the Orion spacecraft, including turning the power on and attaching the heat shield. Lest these seem less exciting that SpaceX’s plans, they are equally important for meeting a publicly announced deadline to fly astronauts to the Space Station in 2018. Last week, NASA tested Orion’s parachutes under conditions that simulated a launch abort. Six additional parachute tests are expected before any crewmembers board Orion, however.
Even while both NASA and SpaceX have pushed human flights to 2018, the parallel tracks have fostered questions of a new space race. SpaceX recently announced it had secured a contract to fly two private citizens around the moon in 2018. And, at the request of the Trump Administration, NASA is studying the feasibility of astronauts flying aboard Orion’s first flight on the Space Launch System. That mission—currently also scheduled for 2018—is also due to fly around the moon, though if humans were added to the mission a launch date in 2018 is unlikely.
Still, whether SpaceX or NASA gets there first, it looks increasingly likely that humans will travel to the moon before this decade is out. Doing so, and doing it safely, will depend on meeting 2017 milestones.