U.S. Launch Providers Plan Busy Year in 2016

Falcon Heavy. (Credit: SpaceX)
Falcon Heavy. (Credit: SpaceX)

The United States has a very busy launch year ahead if all 33 flights currently on the manifest go off as planned. Given the tendency of launches to slip and rockets to occasionally go boom, that is a very big “if”.

United Launch Alliance (ULA) and SpaceX each have 15 launches penciled in this year, according to the latest update to Spaceflight Now’s Launch Schedule page. Orbital ATK has plans for three launches during 2016.

1.01/17/16Falcon 9Jason 3Vandenberg
2.JanuaryFalcon 9SES 9
Cape Canaveral
3.02/03/16Atlas VGPS 2F-12Cape Canaveral
4.02/07/16Falcon 9CRS 8Cape Canaveral
5.02/10/16Delta IVNROL-45Vandenberg
6.Early 2016Falcon 9Eutelsat 117 West B & ABS 2ACape Canaveral
7.Early 2016Falcon 9JCSAT 14Cape Canaveral
8.1st QuarterFalcon 9Amos 6Cape Canaveral
9.03/10/16Atlas VOA-6Cape Canaveral
10.03/21/16Falcon 9CRS-9Cape Canaveral
11.AprilFalcon HeavyDemo FlightKennedy
12.05/05/16Atlas VMUOS 5Cape Canaveral
13.05/12/16Delta IV HeavyNROL-37Cape Canaveral
15.06/10/16Falcon 9CRS 10Cape Canaveral
16.06/24/16Atlas VNROL-61Cape Canaveral
18.07/21/16Delta IVAFSPC 6Cape Canaveral
19.07/27/16Atlas VSBIRS GEO 3Cape Canaveral
20.08/15/16Falcon 9CRS-11Cape Canaveral
21.AugustFalcon 9Iridium Next 3-12Vandenberg
22.09/03/16Atlas VOSIRIS-RExCape Canaveral
23.09/15/16Atlas VWorldView 4Vandenberg
24.09/28/16Delta IVWGS 8Cape Canaveral
26.OctoberFalcon 9Iridium Next 13-22Vandenberg
27.10/14/16Atlas VGOES-RCape Canaveral
28.OctoberFalcon HeavySTP-2Kennedy
29.11/10/16Atlas VEchoStar 19Cape Canaveral
30.12/01/16Atlas VNROL-79Vandenberg
31.12/15/16Falcon 9CRS-12Cape Canaveral
32.DecemberDecember Atlas VAEHF 4Cape Canaveral
33.DecemberFalcon 9Dragon Crew Demo 1Kennedy

The highlight of SpaceX’s manifest is the inaugural flight of the Falcon Heavy rocket in April. The heavy-lift booster features three clustered Falcon 9 stages with 27 engines as its first stage. A second Falcon Heavy flight is scheduled for October.

Another highlight is scheduled for December with the first flight of the Dragon Crew vehicle designed to carry astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS). The inaugural mission will not have a crew on board.

Dragon Version 2. (Credit: SpaceX)
Dragon Version 2. (Credit: SpaceX)

The Falcon Heavy and Dragon Crew flights will lift off from LC-39A at the Kennedy Space Center. The last launch conducted from that historic pad was the final flight of the space shuttle program in 2011.

SpaceX plans five flights of its cargo Dragon vehicle to the space station this year, beginning with CRS 8 in February. The supply ship has not flown since June when a Dragon was destroyed after its Falcon 9 booster exploded after launch from Cape Canaveral.

Fifteen launches in 2016 would be a major achievement for SpaceX, which has never managed more than seven launches in any one calendar year. That record was set last year, and it was marred by the Falcon 9 loss and a six-month stand down.

Orion Exploration Flight Test launch. (Credit: NASA)
Orion Exploration Flight Test launch. (Credit: NASA)

Rival ULA has demonstrated the capacity to launch that many rockets. It launched 14 times in 2014 and another dozen rockets last year without any failures. There were 16 launches on the company’s manifest for 2016 before NASA postponed the flight of the Mars InSight landed until 2018 due to technical problems.

However, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission remains on schedule for launch in September aboard an ULA Atlas V booster. The spacecraft will visit the asteroid Bennu and return soil samples for analysis back on Earth.

Cygnus approaches ISS (Credit: NASA)
Cygnus approaches ISS (Credit: NASA)

An Atlas V is scheduled to launch Orbital ATK’s Cygnus cargo ship to the International Space Station in March. This is the second and final scheduled Cygnus flight aboard the ULA launcher; the first flight was conducted in December.

Orbital ATK plans to launch the next Cygnus on an upgraded Antares booster at the end of May. The rocket has been fitted with a more powerful first stage engine following the loss of an Antares and Cygnus in a launch explosion in October 2014.

Orbital ATK plans to launch another Cygnus to ISS in November.  The company will launch a Minotaur-C rocket with the SkySat spacecraft on board sometime in the middle of the year.

Florida will see the most launch action this year, with 21 flights scheduled from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and three from the Kennedy Space Center.  Seven launches are schedule from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, with two launches from Wallops Island in Virginia.