Space enterprise could be seen growing and flourishing in 2015. There were — and will be — challenges and missteps, but private companies now play a growing and integral role in the U.S. space program and space-exploration activities around the globe. Here are five of the most memorable moments for the commercial space sector from the past year:
5. ISS VEGGIES
The International Space Station is often referred to as an “orbiting science lab.” That’s because there are always hundreds of experiments under way by the multinational crew, and such work forms the core mission of the ISS. NASA’s commercial-space partners play a big supporting role in such experiments, as they now are the agency’s go-to means for shuttling cargo and supplies to the space station. So it was a particularly big deal when one of those experiments produced results anybody back on Earth could understand: the first-ever vegetables produced in outer space. Of course, it was also a big deal for the menu-challenged inhabitants of the ISS.
4. BLAST-PROOF EARNINGS
Orbital ATK suffered a high-profile NASA mission failure, when an unmanned rocket carrying cargo headed for the International Space Station exploded soon after take off on Oct. 28, 2014. One might think that would be a drag on earnings for at least a couple quarters, but one would be wrong. Subsequent Orbital ATK financial results proved resilient, thanks to the company’s diverse array of aerospace and defense contracts. Year-end results should be bolstered by a $50 million payment from Aerojet Rocketdyne in the third quarter to cover the rocket-engine company’s role in the 2014 rocket explosion.
3. NASA’S RECORD BUDGET
Here’s a shock: Members of Congress sometimes disagree on what to do with regard to the nation’s space program. So it was cause for celebration when they voted unanimously to pass a budget package featuring a 7% increase in funding for NASA. That will help the space agency throw the transition to outsourced rocket and launch services into high gear, further bolstering its commercial-space partners and accelerating a push into deep-space exploration and cutting-edge enterprise such as asteroid mining.
2. SPACEX, ORBITAL RTFs
It was terribly bad news for the commercial space sector when an unmanned SpaceX rocket headed for the International Space Station exploded soon after take off on June 28, coming eight months after a similar mishap with an Orbital ATK rocket. But NASA stood behind the companies pending subsequent investigations and appropriate adjustments were made. And just as the year was winding to a close, both SpaceX and Orbital staged dramatic comebacks with successful “return-to-flight” rocket launches.
1. SPACEX, BLUE ORIGIN LANDINGS
SpaceX had a “secondary test objective” in its Dec. 21 return-to-flight launch: recovering the rocket’s first stage by landing it on a pad at Cape Canaveral. When it managed to stick the landing in perfect fashion (pictured, top) — with a worldwide audience via video on the company’s website — the goose bumps were anything but secondary. In fact, the landing was truly historic, as no orbital rocket ever had been successfully recovered on land previously. And less than a month earlier, Blue Origin successfully recovered the launcher stage of its suborbital New Shepard spacecraft in an impressive launch and landing operation.