The year 2014 was one of steady progress and major setbacks in commercial space. Here is a rundown of some of the major developments and trends of the year. A later will look more closely at some of the companies in the industry.
A Crash in the Desert. The tragic loss of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo and death of Scaled Composites test pilot Mike Alsbury on Oct. 31 sent shock waves through the space community. The ship was ripped apart over the Mojave Desert about 13 seconds into a powered flight test when its twin tail booms suddenly deployed. Pilot Pete Siebold was thrown free of the wreckage and landed under parachute, battered and bruised but alive.
As the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) began an investigation, Virgin Galactic officials vowed to continue on with the much delayed and problem-plagued program, which is designed to send space tourists on suborbital flights. The company said it would speed up construction on a second SpaceShipTwo vehicle with hopes of resuming flight tests in April.
The accident was a particular blow to Scaled Composites, which built and tested the space plane. It was yet another reminder of the dangerous nature of spaceflight. Alsbury was the fourth company employee to die on the program. Three engineers died in a test stand accident in 2007 while conducting a cold flow of SpaceShipTwo’s oxidizer.
As Virgin Galactic and Scaled struggled to recover, New Mexico taxpayers were left to pay for operations of Spaceport America, the $218 million facility it custom built for SpaceShipTwo operations. Officials there accelerated their efforts to attract other tenants to the desert facility as they grappled with a budget deficit caused by the delays in beginning flight operations.
Commercial Resupply Takes a Step Backward
Less than three days before the SpaceShipTwo crash, an Orbital Sciences Antares rocket exploded 14 seconds after lifting off from its launch pad on Wallops Island, Va. An unmanned Cygnus cargo ship headed for the International Space Station (ISS) was destroyed.
It was a significant setback for both Orbital and NASA, which had co-funded the development of the rocket and cargo ship, and is paying the company to deliver supplies to ISS under a separate agreement.
In response, Orbital sped up a plan to replace the aging first-stage AJ-26 engines that investigators identified as the cause of the explosion with modern engines. It also will fly a Cygnus cargo ship to the space station in late 2015 aboard a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V booster.
NASA Awards Commercial Crew Contracts
In September, NASA awarded contracts for the final phase of its Commercial Crew Program to Boeing and SpaceX. If all goes well, the United States will have redundant access to the International Space Station by the end of 2017.
Sierra Nevada Corporation, which was left without a chair for its Dream Chaser shuttle, protested the awards, claiming it could do the job cheaper than Boeing and that there were irregularities in the space agency’s decision process. The Government Accountability Office rejected the protest, upholding NASA’s decision on Jan. 5.
SpaceX & ULA Battle It Out
The battle between SpaceX and United Launch Alliance (ULA) heated up in 2014. SpaceX sued the U.S. Air Force to invalidate an award of 36 rocket cores to ULA. That battle is still being waged in court.
SpaceX also moved closer to certification of its Falcon 9 booster to launch military payloads, which would break ULA’s monopoly on those launches. The U.S. Air Force had hoped to complete the process by December, but it is now aiming for mid-2015.
SpaceX completed six Falcon launches, double the number in 2003 but below the 10 to 12 it had planned. The company made significant progress on an ambitious effort to recover the rocket’s first stage for reuse. An attempt to land the first stage on a barge is set for Saturday morning.
The FAA also approved the company’s plans to build its own launch center near Brownsville, Texas. SpaceX also signed a 20-year lease to use Pad 39-A at the Kennedy Space Center. The company will use the historic launch pad for flights of its Falcon Heavy launch vehicle and human Dragon missions.
Last year was ULA’s most successful to date as it successfully launched a record 14 rockets. The company also experienced significant change as it moved to counter SpaceX and deal with worsening relations between the United States and Russia over Ukraine.
ULA replaced CEO and President Michael Gass, who had led the company since its founding in 2006, with Tory Bruno in August. A month later, Bruno appeared with Blue Origin Founder Jeff Bezos to announce a joint venture to develop a new first-stage engine to replace the Russian-made RD-180 motor. The announcement came as efforts in Congress accelerated to ban the use of the Russian engine and fund development of an American replacement.
ISS Utilization Takes Off
The International Space Station (ISS) saw increasing use in 2014 in a variety of ways. The station was used for micro-gravity experiments, as a launch pad for CubeSats, and a platform upon which to attach external experiments and instruments.
CASIS sponsored a growing number of scientific investigations on ISS, while NanoRacks made a business out of arranging for transportation of experiments aboard commercial Cygnus and Dragon cargo ships.
The Obama Administration has approved a plan to extend ISS operations from 2020 to at least 2024. However, none of NASA’s international partners – Europe, Russia, Canada or Japan – has yet committed to the extension.
ISS operations were not affected by growing tensions between Russia and its partners over Ukraine. However, Russia is now talking about pulling out of the program in 2020 and developing its own space station. The nation also made moves to deepen cooperation with China.
Smallsats Come Into Their Own
The smallsat revolution hit its stride in 2014, providing opportunities for everyone from high school students building CubeSats as class projects to the world’s largest tech companies trying to expand their reach to everyone on Earth.
A Silicon Valley start-up named Planet Labs has made a business out of launching dozens of Earth imaging CubeSats, many of them from the space station. The spacecraft are mass produced and can be easily replaced.
Silicon Valley giants Google and Facebook are both eying fleets of small satellites that can provide global broadband coverage to almost every location on the globe. The prize: billions of users who currently don’t have reliable Internet access.
In November, industry officials reported that WorldVu had requested bids for the construction of 640 communications satellites weighing a mere 125 kg (276 lbs) apiece. The company has been variously linked to Google and SpaceX Founder Elon Musk.
NASA CubeSat Launch Initiative has been providing opportunities for educators, students, scientists and space enthusiasts to send their spacecraft into orbit. The space agency also has been funding research and development into new small satellite technologies, including thrusters, navigation systems, instruments, sensors and launch vehicles.
In November, NASA launched its Cube Quest Challenge, a $5 million competition for inventors to come up with innovative CubeSat proposals to launch to the moon as secondary payloads on the first integrated flight of NASA’s Orion spacecraft and Space Launch System (SLS) rocket. That mission is set for 2018.
Engineers and scientists across NASA have been working on plans to incorporate CuheSats into planetary missions. The basic would be for the main spacecraft to launch groups of smaller satellites for the up-close exploration of planetary rings, moons and other surfaces.
Europe & Russia Head In Different Directions
While Europe and Russia cooperated on the ambitious ExoMars mission, they headed in different directions when it came to commercial space.
While ESA has agreed to fund the next generation Ariane 6 booster, it has left it up to industry to determine exactly how to design and build the launch vehicle. This is a significant change from previous efforts, where ESA had a much more hands-on role in booster development. European governments will guaranteed a certain number of launches during the initial years of operations, with industry responsible for finding commercial payloads.
While ESA has sought to tap into the power of commercial space companies, Russia has been busy re-nationalizing its space industry under the control of state-owed United Rocket and Space Corporation. Whether the consolidation effort will produce a more competitive industry or a massive bureaucratic train wreck remain to be seen.
Google Lunar X Prize Delayed
The X Prize announced it would move the deadline back one year to Dec. 31, 2016, because none of the teams would be ready to fly this year. If someone wins in 2016, it will have taken nine years to claim a prize announced in 2007. It took NASA eight years to land Apollo 11 on the lunar surface.
The first-prize winner would claim $20 million. If none of the teams announces a firm 2016 launch date by the end of this year, the competition would come to an end.
Lunar CATALYST Focuses on Commercial Sector
Although NASA remained focused on its Asteroid Redirect Mission and Mars, the space agency made a modest effort to encourage commercial exploration of the moon with its Lunar Cargo Transportation and Landing by Soft Touchdown (Lunar CATALYST) program.
The goal of the program is “to encourage the development of robotic lunar landers that can be integrated with U.S. commercial launch capabilities to deliver payloads to the lunar surface.” The effort is being undertaken through no-funds-exchanged Space Act Agreement partnerships. NASA selected Astrobotic Technologies, Masten Space Systems, and Moon Express for partnerships.