SpaceX aims to make history 3 more times in 2018

Tuesday’s Falcon Heavy launch made history, not only becoming the highest-capacity rocket platform since the Saturn V but accomplishing the first double autonomous booster landing. And that’s just the start of what could prove to be an epic year for SpaceX — if Elon Musk’s ambitious timeline isn’t delayed, say by high winds.

There are three major events in the works for 2018 — two likely in the summer and one at the end of the year.

First there’s the next Falcon Heavy launch, which after multiple delays will hopefully be taking off in June with a handful of satellites both military and private. This could set a couple of records — heaviest commercial payload, for instance, and if things go well it might even get that triple autonomous booster landing that was hoped for yesterday.

The June launch, by the way, will carry a couple interesting payloads. You may remember the test flight of Lightsail, a prototype solar sailing spacecraft that launched in 2015. The new version should launch this year, built by the Planetary Society; Bill Nye is one of the project’s most outspoken advocates. And there’s also the Deep Space Atomic Clock, which is pretty much exactly what it sounds like, keeping hyper-accurate time that spacecraft can check with for navigational purposes.

SpaceX may also attempt the first water landing of its fairing, Musk hinted in the press conference following the Falcon Heavy launch. We can expect it in the next six months, he said, but the problem is that it’s not a guided landing and the fairing tends to drift on its way down.

“Fairing recovery has proven surprisingly difficult. You pop the parachute and you’ve got this giant awkward thing — it tends to interfere with the air flow on the parachute,” he said. “My guess is next six months we’ll figure out fairing recovery. We have a special boat to catch the fairing; it’s like a giant catcher’s mitt in boat form.”

That would be the “Large Barge,” though it hasn’t been put into play yet. Catching a falling fairing before it hits the water would be another historic feat, further reducing the cost of launch and recovery. (Clearly they’re saving the capsule catch record for another year.)

“I think we might be able to do something similar for Dragon,” he added, half-jokingly.


SpaceX’s Crew Dragon

The last major item planned for this year is a crewed flight of the new Dragon capsule. Musk said at the press conference that “After Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy Block 5 [the next revision of the platform], it’s all hands on deck for Crew Dragon. We’re aspiring to fly a crew orbit by the end of this year. I think the hardware will be ready.”

Commercial crewed missions are the next major area of interest of commercial space industry, and SpaceX is competing with Boeing for the glory of it and, as a secondary consideration, the lucrative government contracts. But sending actual humans up in rockets that still occasionally explode isn’t an option — the reliability of the launch platform has to be rock-solid and any issues causing failures need to be addressed.

SpaceX’s record has been clear for over a year; the last real failure was in 2016, when on September 1 a Falcon 9 exploded on the pad during launch prep, apparently caused by a pressure vessel failure. In late 2017 a Merlin engine exploded during testing, but that’s kind of what testing is for. And the mysterious Zuma payload from Northrop Grumman didn’t go right just last month, but it wasn’t actually SpaceX’s fault. Again, though, actual humans will be on this. As they say, “Failure is not an option.”

Nevertheless, Musk seemed confident that they would be ready for a crewed Dragon orbit by the end of the year.

Less clear timing-wise are early tests for the spaceship section of SpaceX’s BFR project. Musk gave a few hints about this at the press conference following the Falcon Heavy launch.

“I think we might also be able to do short hopper flights with the spaceship part of the BFR, maybe next year,” he said. “By hopper tests I mean go up several miles and come down. We’ll do flights of increasing complexity. We want to fly out, turn around, accelerate back real hard, and come in hot to test the heat shield.”

“The ship is capable of single-stage orbit if you want to fully load the tanks,” he added, but real test flights probably won’t happen for three or four years. How that all will play out is very much in flux right now. And who knows when Starlink, or whatever it’s called, will happen.

Whether the company will accomplish these three feats in the next year depends on quite a lot, but after Tuesday’s launch I’m feeling optimistic.