Every year seems to be historic for the space industry, but the last few have been exceptionally so.
In May 2020, astronauts launched from U.S. soil for the first time in nearly a decade. Since then, billionaires have taken sub-orbital joyrides, a crew of non-professional astronauts spent three days in space, and the long-awaited James Webb Space Telescope began its journey to explore the origins of the universe.
According to News 6 partner Florida Today, this year promises to be just as exciting thanks to launches of new mega rockets, the first step to returning humans to the moon, and a look at a rocket that might someday carry astronauts to Mars.
Here are some space highlights to look forward this year.
After more than a decade in development, NASA’s upcoming Space Launch System rocket is finally slated to launch this year. Most of its timeline remains foggy as teams first need to roll the massive 322-foot rocket to Kennedy Space Center’s pad 39B, then perform a fully integrated fueling test known as a “wet dress rehearsal.”
The test is currently scheduled for no earlier than February as teams work to replace engine controller hardware in the Vehicle Assembly Building, so expect the uncrewed test flight no earlier than March or April. The rocket will take an Orion capsule to lunar orbit, an Apollo 8-like precursor to eventually putting astronauts on board and doing the same for Artemis II.
SLS’ core stage is built by Boeing while the Orion spacecraft is manufactured by Lockheed Martin. The Artemis program aims to put two NASA astronauts on the lunar surface no earlier than 2025.
SpaceX crewed missions
SpaceX, meanwhile, is set to continue its pace of launching Crew Dragon capsules to Earth orbit, complete with crews destined for the International Space Station.
Now set for no earlier than late February, the company will host Ax-1, a mission purchased by space tourism and infrastructure company Axiom. A former NASA astronaut and three others who purchased tickets will stay on the ISS for just under two weeks. Axiom eventually plans on building its own space station.
SpaceX will also continue delivering NASA astronauts to the ISS as part of the Commercial Crew Program. Crew-4 will fly from KSC’s pad 39A no earlier than April 15. Crew-5, meanwhile, is slated to launch no earlier than the fall of 2022.
SpaceX’s three-core Falcon Heavy rocket should make another Space Coast appearance this year.
Currently set for the first quarter, the rocket will fly from KSC’s pad 39A before performing an aerial ballet of booster separations followed by dual touchdowns on drone ships stationed in the Atlantic Ocean. It won’t include the same “wow factor” as boosters touching down at Cape Canaveral, but separation should be visible from the ground if skies are clear enough. The center core will be expended into the Atlantic.
This will mark the fourth Falcon Heavy flight to date. Secured in its payload fairing will be USSF-44, which will deploy two Space Force payloads to geosynchronous orbit some 22,300 miles above Earth.
Falcon Heavy made its high-profile debut nearly three years ago in February 2018.
Starship orbital flight
Though not launching from Florida, the first orbital flight of SpaceX’s next-generation Starship will be one not to miss – especially since the massive rocket will fly from Kennedy Space Center in the coming years.
Elon Musk late last year was pushing for this orbital test, which would begin at SpaceX’s pad on the southern tip of Texas near Brownsville, to kick off by the middle of 2022. Previous tests have seen the rocket’s upper stage, also known as Starship itself, lift off, turn around, then return to the pad for a vertical landing.
The orbital flight test will include the Super Heavy booster and take Starship to a much higher – and more challenging – orbital altitude, after which it will return to the pad.
Musk sees Starship as the vehicle that will take his company to the moon, Mars, and beyond, as well as help build the company’s Starlink satellite internet constellation. The vehicle has also been tasked with taking NASA astronauts to the lunar surface after they arrive in orbit via the agency’s Orion spacecraft and Space Launch System.
Teams at Boeing are also set for a redo of December 2019′s Starliner capsule Orbital Flight Test, which failed to reach the International Space Station due to technical issues but did cut its mission short and touched down in New Mexico.
A second attempt at launching last year didn’t make it off the pad due to a series of stuck valves on Starliner’s service module, which teams have since resolved by swapping out hardware. If schedules hold, the second attempt should fly in the first half of this year.
The uncrewed test mission is designed to demonstrate Starliner’s systems before flying astronauts to the ISS as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. SpaceX was the only other company selected to transport astronauts, which it started doing in 2020.
If all goes according to plan, Orbital Flight Test-2 should happen before the middle of the year. United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V rocket is tasked with Starliner launches.
Newcomers: Blue Origin, Relativity, ULA
Aside from SLS, at least three newcomers are slated to join the Eastern Range’s lineup of launch vehicles.
Blue Origin’s massive 313-foot New Glenn rocket, built just outside the gates of Kennedy Space Center, is set to fly in the fourth quarter of this year if everything goes according to plan. Teams late last year delivered a mockup of the rocket to Launch Complex 36 for checkouts.
Relativity Space, the California-based company using 3D printing technologies to produce rockets and engines, is also planning to launch its Terran vehicle from Cape Canaveral before the end of the year. It will stand about 115 feet tall and is designed to boost smaller payloads to orbit. More on a specific timeline should be available after teams “print” the rocket in California, then ship it via truck to the Cape.
Finally, ULA has already performed a series of tests at Launch Complex 41 and is more or less ready for its next vehicle: Vulcan Centaur. The main thing standing in the way is the delivery of its BE-4 engines, which are purchased from Blue Origin and built in Huntsville, Alabama. Vulcan will ultimately replace ULA’s Atlas and Delta family of rockets and should see its first flight before the end of the year.