Spaceflight Insider

SpaceFlight 2015: What to expect in the coming year

International Space Station solar array Cupola ISS space NASA image posted on SpaceFlight Insider

The coming year stands to be a big one in terms of space exploration. Photo Credit: NASA

The year 2015 is already starting off to a very busy start with Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX ) successfully launching the first supply run to the International Space Station just this past week. The company also, unsuccessfully, attempted to land the Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket’s first stage on a uncrewed ship 200 miles off the coast of Jacksonville, Florida. With Commercial Crew now in full swing we should expect to see more development in this area as the two companies involved in the effort work to return . Boeing and SpaceX engineers are hard at work on their current milestones.

As mentioned, SpaceX started the year off with a cargo flight to the ISS. This 5th operational cargo flight (and the sixth mission for one of the company’s Dragon spacecraft overall) included the first attempt to land the booster’s first stage on a barge at sea, however, according to SpaceX CEO and founder Elon Musk, the booster encountered a “hard landing.” Imagery of this historic event has, as of yet, not been released.  The flight was originally scheduled for late 2014 but launch was delayed due to problems uncovered during a static engine test.

NASA Commercial Crew transportation Capability NASA image posted on SpaceFlight Insider

Image Credit: NASA

SpaceX also has just completed the first milestone under the Commercial Crew transportation Capability (CCtCap) phase of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. The milestone, a certification baseline review was completed in December of last year. The next milestone that SpaceX has on its place is the certification of the Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket and the Dragon v2 spacecraft.

Boeing continues its efforts with the CST-100, their winning entry in NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. Designed to hold 7 astronauts, three structural test articles of the spacecraft are already under development at their processing facility, the former Orbiter Processing Facility 3 (OPF3) located at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

United Launch Alliance Atlas V 401 Pan Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Space Launch Complex 41 SLC-41 ULA photo posted on SpaceFlight Insider - Copy

Orbital Sciences Corporation has tapped ULA’s Atlas V 401 booster to launch a Cygnus spacecraft to the International Space Station. That mission is currently slated to take place near the end of 2015. Photo Credit: United Launch Alliance

Orbital Sciences Corporation has been forced to make some big changes in terms of their Antares booster, the rocket that the Dulles, Virginia-based firm uses to launch the Cygnus spacecraft on its way to the International Space Station. After the catastrophic failure of an Antares rocket’s AJ-26 rocket engine (at present it is believed that the cause of the failure was a turbopump in one of the two engines that power the upper stage) the company was forced to accelerate plans already in motion to replace the antiquated engines.

Orbital had announced that they will no longer be using the Aerojet Rocketdyne AJ-26 engines, which were first brought into usage 40 years ago. Orbital announced that the AJ-26, previously known as the NK-33, would be replaced by the RD-181. Antares will be undergoing engine testing later this year in preparation for a return to flight status sometime in 2016. In the interim, the company has tapped United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V 401 rocket to launch a Cygnus spacecraft to the ISS, that mission is tentatively scheduled to take place at the close of 2015.

Space Tourism

This year should see the return of test flights at Virgin Galactic. According to a report written by Space News’ Jeff Foust, the team at Scaled Composites is working on SpaceShipTwo, tail number 2 and should have construction completed this summer. The first tests of the new craft are likely to be captive carry as they slowly ramp back up after the loss of their first vehicle over Mojave last year.

While the company has remained pretty quiet about the actual roll out date, XCOR is expected to debut their new Lynx Mark I vehicle later this year. While actual flights might be a bit of a stretch, the vehicle will probably undergo a series of ground and taxi tests in preparation for flight.

Rocket Launches (2015 first quarter)

NASA once again has a rather full launch calendar this year. The first quarter will see the launch of two cargo runs (number 5 and 6) from SpaceX. Additionally, NASA has a set of satellites for Earth observations slated for deployment. Both of these will be launched on ULA rockets.

NASA Soil Moisture Active Passive SMAP spacecraft in orbit above Earth NASA image posted on SpaceFlight Insider

NASA’s SMAP spacecraft in orbit above Earth. Image Credit: NASA

Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) – Jan 29, 2015

SMAP is an Earth satellite mission designed to measure and map Earth’s soil moisture and freeze/thaw state to better understand terrestrial water, carbon and energy cycles. It will launch on a Delta II 7320 from Complex 2 at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif.

Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) – March 12, 2015

Launching from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. on an Atlas V 421 launch vehicle, the Magnetospheric Multiscale, or MMS, mission  will study the mystery of how magnetic fields around Earth connect and disconnect, explosively releasing energy via a process known a magnetic reconnection.

This could prove to be a very busy year in terms of spaceflight. United Launch Alliance alone has 13 missions planned to take place with SpaceX showing 17 launches on their manifest. These missions run the gamut from commercial resupply flights to the ISS, to classified payloads for the U.S. Department of Defense, to test flights of new boosters

Solar System Science

Last year was a bounty of information coming back from the various robotic craft we have scattered around the Solar system. 2015 promises to be a year of even more discoveries as more and more science data pours in.

The Mars Science Laboratory, also known as Curiosity, is running strong and healthy despite wheel issues. Curiosity has measured a tenfold spike in methane while traversing the red planet. Researchers used Curiosity’s onboard Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) laboratory a dozen times in a 20-month period to sniff methane in the atmosphere.  For two of those months, the readings averaged 7 parts per billion. Most other readings are at 1/10th that level. Curiosity is currently at the base of Mount Sharp.

NASA-Saturn-Cassini-Ten Years JPL image posted on SpaceFlight Insider

JPL summary of Cassini’s achievements after a decade in orbit above the clouds of Saturn. Image Credit: NASA / JPL

Opportunity is getting brain surgery to fix an amnesia issue. The outcome could affect the mission. According to mission scientists, the rover is suffering from a fault in it’s flash memory storage. The plan is to rewrite Opportunity’s software to avoid using the damaged memory. Already well past the 90 day initial mission, if Opportunity cannot be repaired, it may be the end of the line for the plucky rover.

The Cassini mission is till going strong after more than 10 years of orbiting Saturn, Cassini-Huygens continues to relay information about, and images of, the Gas Giant and its moons. The probe will perform some intricate maneuvers in 2016 when it start to prepare for its fiery plunge into Saturn’s atmosphere.

The MESSENGER mission winds down. All good things come to an end, and the MESSENGER probe is slated to conclude its mission with a final descent to the surface of Mercury in March, after more than 3 years on station. The probe recently observed that Mercury is hit by meteor showers very similar to what we experience here on Earth. MESSENGER found traces of the event as a surge of calcium that happens at regular intervals.

Voyager 2 is expected to follow its younger brother past the outer boundary of the Solar System.  Voyagers 1 and 2, along with Pioneer 10, are the most distant man-made objects.  While Pioneer 10 is no longer transmitting telemetry, both Voyager probes continue to send information back to Earth. Just like Voyager 1, the departure of Voyager 2 from the Solar system will be confirmed much later.

Opportunity Endurance Crater Mars NASA JPL Caltech image posted on SpaceFlight Insider

NASA’s long-lived Mars Exploration rover Opportunity is facing the end of its life if some technological surgery can’t fix some technical issues that the robot has encountered. Photo Credit: NASA / JPL / Caltech

Another mission underway is Dawn. Currently en route to Ceres, the largest asteroid between Mars and Jupiter, Dawn will look at the chemical makeup of the small dwarf planet sized rock. Is there water present, frozen or otherwise? Dawn science equipment consists of a visible camera, a visible and infrared mapping spectrometer, and a gamma ray and neutron spectrometer. Dawn can also use radiometric and optical navigation data to provide insights relating to the Ceres’ gravity field and internal structure.

The blockbuster event in the NASA probe lineup this summer will be the arrival of New Horizons probe at Pluto will be the biggest event this year. New Horizons was launched this month in 2006 from Cape Canaveral. It is expected to encounter Pluto on or about July 14. New Horizons was awakened late last year to begin system checkout in preparation for the big event. The probe includes sensor packages such as the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) and Plasma and high-energy particle spectrometer suite (PAM).

Heavenly Views

In addition to the annual meteor showers and lunar events, a special treat is making itself visible for sky watchers everywhere. Peaking around Jan. 7, Comet Lovejoy can be seen with the naked eye on a clear night. Discovered by prolific amateur astronomer Terry Lovejoy (he has found four other comets) this comet has surprised scientists with its brightness. Comet Lovejoy will be about 44 million miles (70 million km) from Earth at its closest point making the comet equivalent to a 4th magnatude star in brightness. You can find the    comet by looking just to the right and down from the lower limb of Orion’s bow.


 This article was written by SpaceFlight Insider contributors Joe Latrell and Steve Shurtleff

Welcome to SpaceFlight Insider! Be sure to follow us on Facebook: SpaceFlight Insider as well as on Twitter at: @SpaceflightIns





Joe Latrell is a life-long avid space enthusiast having created his own rocket company in Roswell, NM in addition to other consumer space endeavors. He continues to design, build and launch his own rockets and has a passion to see the next generation excited about the opportunities of space exploration. Joe lends his experiences from the corporate and small business arenas to organizations such as Teachers In Space, Inc. He is also actively engaged in his church investing his many skills to assist this and other non-profit endeavors.

Reader Comments

You write about Orbital’s problem with their rocket engines and replacement thereof, but not one mention that these are Russian rocket engines, both the problem one that explode and the considered replacement. Why are you cleansing the identity of these engines from your story? To protect Orbital or ULA? What’s up here Joe? Please don’t answer that a lot of people already know about an old story, because a lot of people don’t.

I don’t know what the term “cleansing the identity” is supposed to convey exactly except that we should not be using Russian engines. The New Space crowd will variously scream cheap and then wave the flag as it suits their agenda. They also like to confuse the issue by mixing lofting satellites with transporting people.
If you want to cast aspersions on rocket engines then the low thrust kerosene burning Merlin is a good target. It is actually a crummy little engine despite all the infomercials and SpaceX worship. Kerosene is an obsolete propellent. The shuttle was a poor design not because of its propulsion systems. The SRB’s and SSME’s were extremely powerful and the best possible mix for a combined lower and and upper stage. It was actually in the Saturn V class but most of the lift was wasted on the orbiter. A cargo version like Shuttle C or Sidemount would have worked well but for various reasons did not happen. It is tragicomic that an inferior lift vehicle like the falcon came into being largely with tax dollars and ridiculous to call it anything but a hobby rocket. But ridiculous rules when it comes to politics and spaceflight.

Lockheed Martin needs a new engine to plug the hole in the Atlas and is calling this a “crucial need” to get funding for it. Very little is heard about the other ULA bird- the Delta IV. It uses the best liquid engine in the world right now; the RS-68A. We don’t need a new kerosene engine. As for a really big lower stage number the 7.2 million pounds of thrust from twin 5 segment SRB’s outclass anything on planet Earth by quite a huge margin.

It is really counterproductive to try and spread part non-truth and part bile as fact. “The truth will out” as the Brits (starting with Shakespeare) like to say. Consider a couple of facts you can verify for yourself.

The Merlin 1D is the highest thrust-to-weight orbital rocket engine in production by any country and any company. Far away from being a “crummy little engine” it is the best there is in terms of thrust efficiency.

The Falcon-1 and Falcon-9 were developed with private money. NASA buys a lot of flights from Space-X now, but that only started after the rockets were developed privately.

Several decades of space missions have shown that RP-1 (kerosene) is the best fuel we have available today. Liquid hydrogen is a really poor fuel because it is so expensive to extract, cool and compress and so difficult to store (it leaks right through the walls of steel storage tanks at an alarming rate). Solid fuel rockets are poor because they are impossible to shut down and restart: once they light up you wait for them to run out of fuel and hope you don’t have an emergency that requires you to cut them loose.

SpaceX is doing a heck of job and building so much valuable experience building and (and soon flying) five Merlin 1D’s a week. 2015 is going to be a very busy year for them. Everyone is benefiting from their efforts.

In 2015 Orbital will be flying again. It is another positive development that everyone benefits from.

Steady as can be, ULA will fly a number of missions in 2015. They are feeling the heat of competition for the first time in years and we will no doubt see them step up and deliver more at a lower cost than ever before because of it. Again, everyone benefits.

2015 is an exciting year to be watching and involved with our own internal Space Race.

“-the highest thrust-to-weight orbital rocket engine-”

For rocket engines that lift over a hundred times their own weight it is the least relevant number but SpaceX plays it up like it is the only one that matters; it really does not matter and is a little lower because there is less mass required to manage vibration due to the lower thrust. In the lower stage total thrust counts more than Isp and in the upper stage Isp counts the most. The Merlin is a low thrust engine and that is why there are 9 of them instead of 1. At a little over 300 seconds it has a low Isp compared to the over 450 of the SLS RS-25 and at 150,000 pounds of thrust it is anemic compared to the 500,000 pounds of the RS-25. Like I said, it is a crummy little engine. Compared to the 3.6 million pounds of thrust of the 5 segment SRB used in the SLS lower stage it is a toy.

“Liquid hydrogen is a really poor fuel-”

It is the highest performing propellent there is. Kerosene is nasty stuff and cokes up a rocket so it is really the worst fuel to use in an engine claimed to be reusable. Solid rocket boosters deliver millions of pounds of thrust with no moving parts to speak of and 200 flawless SRB firings in a row prove that you are the one “spreading part non-truth and part bile as fact.”

Another New Space fan regurgitating propaganda.

I am thinking Ceres will be the blockbuster event and not Pluto. Ceres is actually a far better destination for a human mission than Mars for several reasons. The main one being if it has a subsurface ocean then complex life is possible and exploration by manned submersible is a far better mission than a cold dim rock. Ceres is a completely easy body to land an entire spaceship on compared to Mars and is an icy body so water is readily available for both a nuclear pulse propulsion system and to refill a space radiation shield. The first look at Ceres could (and should) cause Mars to no longer be the “horizon goal” of the space agency.

The reality is the perception that Mars is “just close enough” to get to on the cheap is false- a public relations illusion. A true spaceship with massive space radiation shielding and artificial gravity- and nuclear propulsion- will be required to get to Mars. And if you have such ships then going on to Ceres and the moons of the gas giants is a much better plan. Sorry Mars fans.

To Bandagin who says that a mission to Mars is a public relations stunt only:

Although you are correct that Ceres would make an exceptional candidate for manned exploration, the real problem behind any new manned mission is desire. We have been building a public desire for Mars for decades now. It only took one decade of serious desire to get man on the moon. Part of the failure of the Constellation program was the stepping stone approach. No one wants to wait for Mars with a Lunar detour.

So yes, you are right. Mars is a public relations move. An effective one. Who has heard of Ceres? 1 in 100 in the general populace. NASA runs on taxpayer money. Let’s give the taxpayers something they want. A cold dim rock to call their own.


“We have been building a public desire for Mars for decades now.”

Who is we? Some kind of popular culture collective consciousness? NASA (and Elon) is using it for publicity but besides some not so great computer graphics have no way to get there or a lander. SLS is a launch vehicle. Unless they are going to put the astronauts to sleep for years coming and going Orion is no spaceship- and the radiation makes suspended animation (even if we had that technology) a non-starter anyway.

The elephant in the room has always been space radiation; hundreds of tons of water shielding are required for long duration deep space missions. Probably thousands. It is shocking but it is what it is. And because of the ice on the Moon and the work of Freeman Dyson and Ted Taylor on the nuclear pulse propulsion system for Project Orion, radiation is not a showstopper. But not going to the Moon is. The Moon is the only place to acquire the shielding and assemble, test, and launch nuclear missions.

“It only took one decade of serious desire to get man on the moon.”

Actually the Soviet missile designed to drop an H-bomb on the United States was what put a man on the Moon. Korolov’s R-7 started the whole thing and has been flying since 1957, over 57 years. Once Gagarin parachuted back to Earth (first parachute descent was in 1797) there was only one thing that would top that. It is actually what we are riding on now. About one out of three dollars we pay for a seat goes to the Russian Mafia by the way.

There is more to it than “desire.”


To: “Who is we? Some kind of popular culture collective consciousness? ”

I answer yes. Some kind of collective consciousness. Schiaparelli, Bradbury, Robinson, Zubrin, Aldrin, Musk, NASA, Mars ONE. There is a collective desire to colonize Mars. It is not a publicity stunt of SpaceX to get more money from NASA by saying they are working toward Mars. The publicity stunt is getting money to ship astronauts to LEO and actually using that money for Mars colonization. Come hell or high water. One way missions or not.

Orion is a joke for a Mars mission unless it is a repeat of an Apollo type landing. And even then, it will take some interesting psychologies in the astronauts to survive the trip without suspended animation, and would essentially be a death sentence. This year we should see plans from SpaceX for a Mars Colonial Transport. Maybe it will be of Hyperloop-style impracticality from an infrastructure standpoint, but most great achievements in history started out that way.

You’re right. Space radiation is the elephant in the room. There are many challenges still to be overcome, and the moon will be necessary. Also saying it only took one decade of desire to reach the moon was probably a little romantic of me; my apologies.


This comment violated SFI’s commenting policy and has been deleted.

Space Scientists see its value. And its enabling small satellite launches, via Launcher One.

Dear Moderator – Why does this site tolerate “contributors” who have nothing but caustic, negative comments about every article you write? It really detracts from your stories when people like “BANDAGIN” (and others who I’m sure you’re aware of) leave nothing but petty, factually incorrect inflammatory comments illustrating their own bias and ignorance of Aerospace? I just don’t understand why someone would go to such lengths to attack your story content, while preaching their own distorted views about how they (in all their self professed “technical wisdom”) could launch rockets more efficiently than the people who actually ARE transporting humanity into space. I’ve been in the Aerospace Industry almost 40 years, and I have NO idea what this “New Space” garbage is I’ve heard mentioned repeatedly on this site. My apologies to your well written reporting, but allowing these negative comments indicates that some of your readers are very poorly informed. While there’s a lot I still don’t know about Rocket Science, I certainly wouldn’t go out of my way to illustrate that fact in a public forum with irresponsible posts like the ones I’ve read here.

“I’ve been in the Aerospace Industry almost 40 years, and I have NO idea what this “New Space” garbage is I’ve heard mentioned repeatedly on this site.”

Nobody believes you.

We welcome all viewpoints, even those that disagree with us. Also, I question the veracity of your statements, given that “NewSpace” has been around for years. Even the briefest of searches shows NewSpace is an established term. Perhaps you’re not as versed in this business as you think. This isn’t an insult, as it appears almost everyone who comments on the topic of space thinks they know more than everyone else. Just because you’re unaware of a subject doesn’t make it “garbage.” Insinuating NewSpace is a phrase we coined – conveniently ignores the fact, The National Review & Popular Science – have all used it. Before you criticize someone, I’d recommend hitting Google first – it’d lessen the chance you’ll embarrass yourself again. Sorry for the blunt response, but your attack on this site was unwarranted and based off of ignorance.
Sincerely, Jason Rhian – Editor, SpaceFlight Insider

Point taken Jason. And you are correct that “I am not as versed in this business as I think”. As I clearly stated in my post “There’s a lot I still don’t know about Rocket Science”. Only a fool claims to know everything. However your commentators often seem to state their views in absolutes, and quite crudely. I applaud your open forum viewpoints. I do think terms like “crummy” and “inferior lift vehicle” reflect the demeanor of those who post them (especially considering how brilliantly successful that “crummy inferior lift vehicle” is). As an employee of a “New Space” company myself, I had no idea I was being labeled as a “New Space” Cadet. (Thank you for your wikipedia link, letting me know my true status.) Perhaps my 4 years spent at the University of Michigan, and decades in Aerospace are lacking after all. I see you deleted a recent comment by BANDAGIN for violating your policies. I must say I find that a somewhat ironic, but welcome action. Best of luck with your site.

You were provided with eight links, were the other 7 not worthy of note? I found those with the most cursory of reviews. We try to check comments at least once a day, however, as SFI is primarily a volunteer organization – we don’t get to them as often as we’d like. It doesn’t matter if troll behavior comes from Old or NewSpace supporters – our commenting policy stands firm for both. Ironic? Why? He violated our commenting policy.
Jason Rhian – Editor, SpaceFlight Insider

Also coming up this year is the launch abort system check on the Dragon V2, along with the first flight of the heavy. Cant wait!!!!!!!

The launch abort system on the toxic dragon loads the capsule up with hypergolics and this actually makes a mockery of crew survivability. It is not really an escape system, it is for keeping a tourist space station in the right orbit. At some point someone is going to throw the B.S. flag on this idea and an escape tower will have to be fitted.
As for the Falcon “Heavy”, those 27 engines are so contrary to good engineering that it is amazing the concept keeps being pursued. Since that mess provides little more than what a single SRB does, the Soviet Moon rocket fiasco comes to mind.

Someone has to be the devil’s advocate concerning New Space. Their cheap and nasty designs and promises of retirement communities on Mars are laughable. The public does not generally understand the basics of space flight so they are taken in by all the infomercials. That needs to change before more billions are wasted on the New Space flim flam.

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