2015 was a banner year for commercial spaceflight.
While a set of high-profile launch failures set back key players Orbital ATK and SpaceX, the industry as a whole rebounded within the year, setting several records in the process.
Commercial launches are driving a revitalization of Florida’s Space Coast, especially Kennedy Space Center. SpaceX and the United Launch Alliance combined for 17 launches out of Cape Canaveral in 2015, an increase from 2014 (albeit only one more).
The private spaceflight community progressed rapidly in 2015, learning along the way how to recover, collaborate, and compete. If 2015 was any indication, 2016 will be fun to watch.
Here’s a look at some of the progress commercial space firms made in 2015.
Commercial Crew Program
The year was capped with an exceptional NASA budget, which included full funding for the Commercial Crew Program. The House and Senate initially proposed hundreds of millions in funding reductions to the President’s $1.24 billion request, but after a protracted battle over U.S. reliance on Russian launches and threats of delays to the SpaceX and Boeing capsules funded by the program, Congress approved funding at the President’s requested level.
Earlier in 2015, NASA placed its first commercial crew orders with program contractors SpaceX and Boeing. The first of the two to launch astronauts to the International Space Station will be announced at a later date. If all goes well, astronauts should launch aboard the futuristic Starliner (Boeing) and Crew Dragon (SpaceX) from U.S. soil in late 2017, ending the six year drought since the space shuttle era.
The Commercial Crew Program is revitalizing Florida’s Space Coast, where both SpaceX and Boeing will launch their crewed vehicles. 2015 saw commercial processing hangars and crew access towers popping up left and right across the Cape.
Boeing opened its Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility, repurposing a former space shuttle orbiter processing facility at the Kennedy Space Center. SpaceX will occupy a nearly complete horizontal processing hangar at the base of Launch Pad 39A, where its spacecraft launch.
- Read More: 2015 Commercial Crew Accomplishments, via NASA.
VTVL: Rise of the Reusable Rocket
Vertical Takeoff, Vertical Landing (VTVL) is a form of takeoff and landing where the booster stage of the rocket returns to Earth, landing vertically instead of being discarded into the ocean. Long held as the key to affordable space exploration and commercialization, reusable rockets saw their first full scale successes in 2015.
While a series of experimental VTVL craft have flown over the years, 2015 saw Blue Origin and SpaceX both achieve record-setting launch vehicle recoveries.
In late November, Blue Origin successfully launched its New Shepard booster rocket, marking the first successful vertical booster landing after launching a spacecraft to suborbital space.
Then, in December, SpaceX achieved the first successful vertical booster landing after launching its Falcon 9 rocket along with 11 satellites into orbit.
A major storyline following the New Shepard landing was the bit of “billionaire bickering” that ensued on Twitter with SpaceX founder Musk drawing distinctions between ‘space’ and ‘orbit’ after Blue Origin’s successful flight, noting that SpaceX had achieved VTVL with its Grasshopper rocket years ago. Blue Origin founder, Jeff Bezos, argued the Falcon 9 booster stage never achieves orbital heights, therefore making it a suborbital booster.
The two vehicles feature different designs for different purposes. Because New Shepard is designed to bring up to six people into space for around 5-10 minutes of microgravity, it requires much less energy than Falcon 9, which needs to deliver multiple payloads to orbit. A video explaining the ‘apples to oranges’ comparison between the two vehicles can be found here.
Both are impressive feats. Perhaps most encouraging is the fact that the 21st century space race is being driven by commercial competition. Humanity is the real winner here.
Commercial Cargo Recovers
Commercial Cargo Program contractors SpaceX and Orbital ATK both spent much of 2015 in recovery from the setbacks of two respective ISS resupply mission failures.
Both companies returned to flight successfully in 2015. Orbital ATK returned to the ISS in early December, and SpaceX achieved its previously mentioned satellite deliveries and subsequent booster landing.
Both companies quickly identified and addressed the causes of their respective failures and returned to flight within months. The two firms are expected to deliver another eight unmanned launches to the International Space Station in 2016.