Success, setbacks and silence: 2016 in review
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — The past 12 months, for good or ill, have redefined space exploration. In 2016, efforts to expand the space frontier both resumed and retracted, visionaries made bold claims, while legends fell silent forever.
Commercial crew and cargo
NASA has been working for an extended period of time (since 2006) to cede the responsibility of sending cargo and crew to the International Space Station to commercial companies. While cargo delivery under NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services and subsequent Commercial Resupply Services contract have been taking place on a recurring basis since October 2012, the launch date for sending astronauts to the orbiting lab via commercial partners has slipped time and again.
Both of the two partners under NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, Boeing, and SpaceX announced in 2016 that, far from the originally planned 2015 inaugural flights, their CST-100 and Crew Dragon spacecraft would launch astronauts no earlier than 2018 (no commercial company has launched astronauts to orbit to date).
Things on the cargo side of the house also hit a snag when, on Sept. 1, a SpaceX Falcon 9 exploded at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 40 in Florida.
The resulting fireball consumed the $195 million Israeli Amos 6 satellite that was perched atop the “Full Thrust” Falcon 9 at the time. The rocket was in the process of being prepped for a static test fire. While the incident did not involve NASA space station cargo, it has caused all Dragon flights to the ISS to be postponed. To date, SpaceX is still investigating the cause of the mishap.
A little more than three weeks after the Falcon 9 rocket and its payload were lost at Space Launch Complex 40, SpaceX’s CEO and founder Elon Musk gave a presentation at the 67th Annual International Astronautical Congress about his company’s plans to send passengers to the Red Planet.
What has been dubbed the “Interplanetary Transport System” has been described as a means in which to make humanity a multi-planetary species.
“It’s quite big,” Musk said of the system, which includes a 254-foot (77.5-meter) tall booster stage and 162-foot (49.5-meter) tall spaceship. “In the long term, the ship’s will be even bigger than this. It needs to be about this size because in order to fit about 100 people in the pressurized section plus carry the luggage and all the unpressurized cargo to build propellant plants and build everything from iron foundries to pizza joints.”
Additionally, in 2016, SpaceX demonstrated an ever-increasing skill at the ability to have the first stage of its Falcon 9 rockets conduct landings, either back at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Landing Zone 1 or out in the Atlantic Ocean on the Of Course I Still Love You Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS), after pushing the booster’s upper stage toward orbit. SpaceX conducted five successful landings in 2016, four on the ASDS and one landing at LZ-1.
SpaceX also announced in 2016 that the flight of the SES-10 mission, currently scheduled for sometime in the first half of 2017, would mark the first time a previously-flown stage would be reused.
In terms of the NewSpace firm’s rate of launch, 2016 was a good year. The eight successful Falcon 9 flights conducted in 2016 bring SpaceX’s grand total to 26 successful launches, one partial success, and one failure, or, on average, 4.7 flights per year.
Another NewSpace firm that encountered its own setbacks in 2014 returned to its test regimen. Virgin Galactic, whose VSS Enterprise was lost during an in-flight mishap on Oct. 31, 2014, successfully resumed test flights of the system it hopes will ferry paying customers to the very edge of space.
The VSS Unity suborbital spaceplane conducted its first solo glide flight on Dec. 3. As was noted on Space News, a second glide flight was carried out on Dec. 22 after the spaceplane detached from its WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft.
Virgin Galactic wasn’t alone in conducting tests of a vehicle planned for public use. Blue Origin had a heady year with the Kent, Washington-based firm conducting four test flights and landings of its New Shepard rocket throughout the course of 2016. The company almost seemed to be saving the most exciting test for last when, on Oct. 5, the firm conducted an in-flight abort test.
During the uncrewed test, the portion of the vehicle that would carry passengers detached from the propulsion module, demonstrating what would happen during an emergency on ascent. It was thought that the forces placed on the propulsion module during separation would likely spell the rocket’s doom.
However, as soon as the capsule’s abort motor had activated and cleared the module away from the booster, it became obvious that the rocket not only had survived the full brunt of the thrust from the escape pod, but also continued seemingly unperturbed by the fact that it had lost 8,000 pounds (3,600 kilograms) from its top. This was followed by the safe landing of both the passenger and propulsion modules – something that wasn’t given a high probability of happening.
In August, the Google Lunar X-PRIZE team Moon Express announced that it had gained approval from the Federal Aviation Administration to land its MX-1E lander on the surface of the Moon.
“The Moon Express 2017 mission approval is a landmark decision by the U.S. government and a pathfinder for [the] private sector commercial mission beyond the Earth’s orbit,” said co-founder and CEO Bob Richards in an August news release. “We are now free to set sail as explorers to Earth’s eighth continent, the Moon, seeking new knowledge and resources to expand Earth’s economic sphere for the benefit of all humanity.”
One of the other two partners working under NASA’s CRS program, Orbital ATK, returned their newly re-engined Antares 230 rocket to service on Oct. 17. It is believed a faulty turbopump in the Aerojet Rocketdyne AJ26 engine caused the Oct. 28, 2014, loss of the Orb-3 Antares 130 rocket and the Cygnus spacecraft that it carried.
Orbital ATK also conducted a significant, and final, test of the solid rocket boosters that are poised to participate in the late 2018 launch of NASA’s new super heavy-lift Space Launch System and its Orion spacecraft on Exploration Mission 1.
Over the course of the past year, efforts to explore the Solar System and the vast reaches of space beyond continued apace.
After a journey lasting five years, one which got its start atop a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V 551 (AV-029), NASA’s Juno spacecraft entered into polar orbit above gas giant Jupiter. If everything goes as planned, Juno should spend at least 20 months exploring the planet’s composition, gravity field, magnetic field, and polar magnetosphere.
In early December, the Cassini spacecraft carried out a daring dive through Saturn’s rings – part of the long-lived mission’s final Earth year around the distant world.
“We’re calling this phase of the mission Cassini’s Ring-Grazing Orbits, because we’ll be skimming past the outer edge of the rings,” said Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, in a news release in November. “In addition, we have two instruments that can sample particles and gases as we cross the ring plane, so in a sense Cassini is also ‘grazing’ on the rings.”
Meanwhile, a little closer to Earth, NASA’s Dawn mission continued its exploration of the dwarf planet Ceres.
ESA’s Rosetta mission, while experiencing challenges, met with mostly success. Both the Philae lander, as well as the Rosetta spacecraft itself (on Sept. 30, 2016, on 67P’s Ma’at region) would be placed on the surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko. When all was said and done, ESA’s Rosetta mission spent more than two years in orbit above the comet.
One mission, in particular, NASA’s Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS–REx) got its start in 2016. Lifting off from Cape Canaveral’s Space Launch Complex 41 atop a somewhat unique configuration of ULA’s Atlas V (it only employed a single AJ60A solid rocket motor) rocket the probe was launched on Sept. 8.
If everything continues to go as planned, the probe will travel to Asteroid Bennu where a sample will be collected and returned back to Earth in 2023.
Not everything went as planned for the automated explorers patrolling our cosmic neighborhood.
Earlier this month, NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory rover Curiosity encountered problems with one of the core instruments it uses to conduct research on the Red Planet: its drill. As of this past week, this critical component was still out of action, with the problem still recurring.
During 2016, Curiosity drilled 6 holes, roved about 1.86 miles (3 kilometers), and climbed approximately 279 feet (85 meters).
Mars was also the stage for the European Space Agency’s ExoMars mission. The space agency launched the first component of the mission, the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) as well as a technology demonstrator lander named Schiaparelli atop a Russian Proton Briz-M rocket on March 14, 2016.
A little more than seven months later and the duo had entered orbit above the dusty plains and craters of the Red Planet. However, whereas the TGO portion of the mission has successfully got underway, the Schiaparelli lander was not so fortunate.
ESA lost contact with the lander on Oct. 19, with NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter transmitting back images that appear to show the crash site.
As if to underscore the difficulties involved when exploring the Red Planet, NASA announced on Dec. 28 that the long-lived Mars Odyssey mission was recovering after a “precautionary pause” in its activities.
Work on upcoming missions that are currently scheduled to get underway in the coming years completed milestones as well, including two of NASA’s biggest projects: the Space Launch System and the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). Both are scheduled to fly in 2018.
As for the SLS, an aside from the QM-2 test in June, one of the biggest milestones completed was the welding of the largest piece of the core stage of the first flight of the giant booster: the 130-foot (40-meter) liquid hydrogen tank at the Vertical Assembly Center at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans.
It is the largest cryogenic fuel tank for a rocket in the world. Together with the liquid oxygen tank, it will stand more than 200 feet (61 meters) tall. That’s just the first stage! Together with an upper stage and Orion spacecraft, the SLS will be some 322 feet (98 meters) tall.
Another mission that saw a huge milestone complete was the JWST. The primary mirror for the telescope was completed as the agency prepared for its flight atop an Ariane 5 rocket in 2018.
Silent stars – those we lost in 2016
Shortly after the start of the year, on Feb. 4, 2016, Apollo 14 Lunar Module Pilot and Moonwalker Edgar Mitchell died, aged 85, at a hospice located in Lake Worth, Florida. With his death, there are now no surviving Apollo 14 crewmembers and only seven Moonwalkers from the Apollo Program still remain.
Sadly, less than three weeks later, on Feb. 23, Mitchell was joined by shuttle astronaut Don Williams who flew on STS-51-D and STS-34. He was 74.
Astronauts were not the only members of the space community to die in 2016. On Sunday, Dec. 4, 2016, Aleta Jackson, co-founder of the NewSpace aerospace company XCOR, passed away due to complications from chemotherapy. She was 68.
“Her diverse and rich history in and around the space industry as well as serving our great nation in uniform was truly special,” John Gibson, XCOR’s current CEO, said in a statement issued around the time of her passing. “We at XCOR extend our thoughts and prayers to Dan DeLong and her entire family.”
Finally, the passing of Mercury and Shuttle Program astronaut John Glenn, on Dec. 8, was a sad closure to the United States’ first space fraternity.
Glenn, while not the first American to roar into space (that title was held by Alan Shepard who lifted off in his Freedom 7 spacecraft atop a Redstone rocket on May 5, 1961), was the first American to reach orbit. On Feb. 20, 1962, riding the more powerful Atlas LV-3B booster, Glenn completed three orbits before splashing down in the Atlantic Ocean. He and his spacecraft were recovered by the U.S.S. Noa.
He would not fly into space again until Oct. 28, 1998, when he served as a payload specialist on STS-95 aboard Space Shuttle Discovery.
Next, just before Christmas, British-born NASA astronaut Piers Sellers lost his battle with pancreatic cancer on Dec. 23, 2016. Sellers flew to orbit on shuttle missions STS-112, STS-121, and STS-132. He was 61.
As if to underscore the mortality of spaceflight legends, on Dec. 1, Apollo 11 Lunar Module Pilot Buzz Aldrin fell ill during a tour of the South Pole. He was flown to a New Zealand hospital where he has since recovered.
China’s space exploration star is on the rise, figuratively and literally. On Sept. 15, 2016, China launched the nation’s Tiangong-2 space station to orbit. A little more than a month later, the communist country sent the two-person Shenzhou 11 crew to the orbiting laboratory.
Additionally, the China National Space Administration almost equaled the United States in terms of rate of launch. The U.S. sent 22 successful missions into orbit, whereas China sent 21. The U.S. launch rate was helped, in large part, to Colorado-based United Launch Alliance’s 12 flights.
Finally, one of the more unusual Earth-observation missions to get its start in 2016 was the flight of NASA’s Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System (CYGNSS) satellite. The spacecraft launched from one of Orbital ATK’s Pegasus XL launch vehicles (which is launched from beneath a Lockheed Martin L-1011 aircraft).
Jason Rhian spent several years honing his skills with internships at NASA, the National Space Society and other organizations. He has provided content for outlets such as: Aviation Week & Space Technology, Space.com, The Mars Society and Universe Today.