The View From Here

The Global Space Community Has Never Looked Better

Written by: developer

Despite some bumps in the road, 2015 will largely be remembered as a good year for space. Yes, there were moments like the Falcon 9, Proton and Soyuz failures, as well as the loss of Black Brant and Super Strypi small launch vehicles.   

All told there were 82 launch attempts* (orbital or beyond) in 2015, including an impressive 24 Russian, 19 American, 18 Chinese and 11 ESA figure into that number — with only three failures and two partial failures — as of December 17. That space transportation record is a good indicator of robust activity throughout the industry, and data on payloads, operational revenues, government budgets and commercial activity are being analyzed at this writing ahead of the publication of our The Space Report 2016: The Authoritative Guide to Global Space Activity.  

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As good a barometer as this is, it only tells part of the story. Downloads of positioning, navigation and timing apps continue to mushroom, and GPS-based revenues, which grew from $75 billion to $91 billion in 2014, are almost certain to have crossed the $100 billion threshold in 2015. Despite some beat-downs in the overall financial markets in the year past, I fully expect global space revenues will have grown another seven or eight percent, or more.  

There were significant, if not transformational, events — including first flights for four new variants of China’s Long March rocket, a round dozen new orbital encounters by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, the spectacular fly-by of Pluto and Charon by the New Horizons spacecraft, the successful insertion of JAXA’s Akatsuki spacecraft into Venus orbit, a half-dozen successful EVA’s at the International Space Station and the return of Cygnus to ISS service. 

While not as spectacularly visible as EFT-1, important progress continued to be made on the Orion and SLS programs, both in the U.S. and at facilities in Germany and Italy. Add to this the extraordinary, successful first suborbital flight of Blue Origin’s New Shepherd crew capsule and vertical launch system, the passage in the U.S. of an omnibus spending bill that funds NASA at a more-than-requested $19.3 billion (and keeps Atlas 5 flying for the near future), and the release of the UK’s first comprehensive space policy. Shake it all up, and punctuate with SpaceX returning to flight in spectacular fashion by orbiting 11 ORBCOMM satellites and making the historic first return-to-launch-site landing of the main stage of an orbital launch vehicle.

All that having been said, I think that 2016 could be an even better year. 

Here’s why:

Major Tim Peake, RAF (Ret.), UK/ESA astronaut, arrived at the ISS in December to begin a mission that already has had tremendous public outreach impact, especially in Old Blighty. A former test pilot for the RAF and AugustaWestland, Peake is the first Briton to fly in space without a private contract or non-British citizenship. He has been a huge ambassador for space prior to his launch, and, once on orbit, began publicly corresponding with the Queen and tweeting with Sir Elton John. It’s not clear that he’ll become quite the media darling that Canadian Chris Hadfield was, but he’s sure to lift public affections for space in Europe.

With the successful return to flight of Falcon 9 on December 21, SpaceX commences a year that should see a record 12 launches, including the first flight of Falcon 9 Heavy. ULA shows an ambitious 13 launches on its 2016 manifest, Arianespace looks to launch at least five times, a dozen Russian launches have already been announced with more likely to come. ISRO plans a record seven launches, and our normally tight-lipped friends in China have already acknowledged three planned launches during the year — which I expect will actually climb to 12 to 15. It’s going to be a busy, busy year in space transportation! Along those lines, expect to see Virgin Galactic roll out a new SpaceShipTwo in the months ahead, and be mindful that SLS and Orion hardware will continue to move through manufacturing and test in the U.S. and abroad. Look also in 2016 for major developments out of Boeing and SpaceX as they prepare their Starliner and Dragon 2 commercial crew vehicles for significant flight milestones in 2017. (The Dreamchaser team at Sierra Nevada has been working quietly behind the scenes in 2015, and Lynx developer XCOR Aerospace is in transition to new leadership and facilities — two more to watch in 2016.)

Space Traffic Management is likely to get a lot of focus during 2016, as new satellites and constellations continue to proliferate in low earth orbit, debris continues to multiply, and LEO becomes even more Congested, Contested and Competitive. The Space Foundation will hold an off-agenda workshop on the subject during the 32nd Space Symposium.

Space Law will continue to get a lot of attention, and grow in prominence during 2016. Passage of new commercial space law by the U.S. is getting lots of attention and discussion, as other nations consider their own paths forward.  Perhaps even more important, we are seeing more and more developing/emerging space states seeking partnerships with nations, or with companies in nations, that are already party to the Outer Space Treaty; these nations must now consider their own requirements for domestic space law to enable such partnerships, and to build the legal and regulatory foundation for future growth in their own domestic space community.

I don’t know if there will be a tickertape parade down Wall Street (or through Red Square), but it certainly would be appropriate when Scott Kelly and Mikhail Kornienko return from their record-breaking, path finding, one-year stay aboard the ISS. The human factors data and experience from this marathon space flight will help pave the way for outposts on the moon and the lengthy flight to Mars.

OrbitalATK’s Antares is expected to make its return-to-flight launch in 2016, and companies like Rocket Lab and Firefly will be building new space transportation hardware as well. Along with satellite stalwarts like Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Space Systems Loral, Airbus, Surrey Satellites, Ball Aerospace, Mitsubishi Electric and Thales, newcomer Skybox has a flurry of satellite deliveries scheduled for the year. Moon Express should have hardware on dock as they ready for a 2017 launch. Be ready for more surprises from Planetary Resources, too.  

If I’ve left out your favorite company, program, vehicle, spacecraft or whatever, I assure you that its only because there is so much going on in our industry, it is virtually impossible to encapsulate it all in a single column. Never fear, The Space Report 2016 will capture every bit of it, in expansive detail.

The View from Here is that the global space community has never looked better, and 2016 will be one of our best years ever.

This article is part of Space Watch: January 2016 (Volume: 15, Issue: 1).