Though the Space Coast can expect to see fewer rocket launches this year, the potency of upcoming missions will turn all eyes toward the Eastern Range as teams inch closer to the first crewed missions to the International Space Station from American soil in nearly a decade.
2018 turned out to be a banner year for the region as 20 missions – the most since 1998 – took flight from either Kennedy Space Center or neighboring Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. None were “ordinary,” but there were some standout moments: SpaceX’s much-vaunted Falcon Heavy demonstration flight in February and NASA’s Parker Solar Probe mission to “touch the sun” in August, to name a few.
But NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, with help from SpaceX, Boeing and United Launch Alliance, this year will spearhead some of the most highly anticipated launches since the space shuttle program’s end in 2011. All are expected to launch two types of missions, including uncrewed demonstration flights to the ISS, as well as crewed variants.
Commercial Crew flights
Before SpaceX or Boeing can fly crews to the ISS, both have been required by NASA to demonstrate the reliability of their vehicles with two demonstration flights. First, uncrewed versions of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon and Boeing’s Starliner must fly to the orbiting outpost – only then can the second, crewed spacecraft take flight.
After the two demo flights, both companies will fly their first fully operational missions for which astronauts have already been selected.
SpaceX is up first with its uncrewed mission slated for no earlier than Jan. 17, though the recent partial government shutdown means a yet-to-be-determined delay is possible. The company will launch a Falcon 9 rocket from Kennedy Space Center’s pad 39A for Demo-1 and Crew Dragon will splash down in the Atlantic Ocean after departing the ISS.
In March, Boeing and its partner United Launch Alliance will conduct a similar mission and launch an Atlas V rocket and Starliner spacecraft from Cape Canaveral’s Launch Complex 41.
For the second demonstration flights, which will be crewed, SpaceX is targeting June while Boeing and ULA look to August. Both of these tentative dates flank an important milestone in spaceflight: The 50th anniversary of Apollo 11’s landing on the moon.
While all eyes will be on these missions, several high-profile vehicles will still light up the Space Coast sky – and likely attract thousands to the region.
SpaceX’s newest rocket, the Falcon Heavy lifts off on it first demonstration flight. The rocket leapt off Pad 39A at 3:45pm. (Photo: Craig Bailey/FLORIDA TODAY)
The company captured the imaginations of millions in early 2018 when the three-core Falcon Heavy made its first flight with the now-famous “Starman” and Tesla Roadster, but this year promises even more exposure for the world’s most powerful rocket.
According to the latest schedules, SpaceX is targeting the first half of this year for two more launches of Falcon Heavy. Those include an Air Force mission with dozens of spacecraft and the launch of a commercial communications satellite for Saudi Arabia’s Arabsat. First stage landing plans for these flights have not yet been released.
Other missions this year for SpaceX include the launch of an Israeli lunar lander as early as February, at least two more Commercial Resupply Services missions to the ISS, and more commercial satellites.
United Launch Alliance
United Launch Alliance’s Delta IV rocket stands on the pad at Launch Complex 37 ahead of the WGS-9 launch on Saturday, March 18, 2017. (Photo: United Launch Alliance)
ULA’s main priorities for 2019 are flying Boeing’s Starliners to the ISS, but the Space Coast will also see two launches of a seldom seen rocket: Delta IV.
The first mission, slated for late January, will take the Air Force’s 10th Wideband Global Satcom (WGS-10) communications satellite to orbit. After WGS-10, a second Delta IV will take flight sometime before June with a next-generation Global Positioning System spacecraft, also for the Air Force.
Both missions will take flight from Cape Canaveral’s Launch Complex 37.
Northrop Grumman’s air-launched Pegasus XL rocket, which was scrubbed in November and flown back to California due to technical issues, is expected to launch during the first quarter of this year.
On board: NASA’s Ionospheric Connection Explorer science mission, or ICON, which will launch from an L-1011 Stargazer about 100 miles off the coast of Daytona Beach at an altitude of 39,000 feet.
Full launch schedule
For a full, detailed schedule of upcoming Eastern Range launches, visit floridatoday.com/space for the latest.