Yes, technically “event horizon” is a spacetime boundary associated with gravitational pull around objects like black holes. But I’ve empowered myself to adapt it as a description of what’s on the horizon in the year to come, especially with regard to pending developments in manned U.S. spaceflight and exploration.
Last year was the first in recent memory in which no United States astronauts ascended to the heavens from a launch based in their home country. While we are in “the gap,” as this dependent-on-foreign-launch-resources period is informally known, anxious eyes in the U.S. are turned toward the progress of the CCDev (Commercial Crew Development) initiative.
Progress may seem to be slow in coming, but the four main CCDev players – Blue Origin, Boeing, Sierra Nevada, and SpaceX – all have an active year planned.
|The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket boosts the Dragon capsule into orbit in May, 2012.|
Boasting what is likely the highest public profile, SpaceX successfully flew an unmanned supply mission to the International Space Station in 2012. But a manned flight increases the complexity of the vehicle. The company plans to conduct crew-escape testing – both on the ground and in powered flight at maximum aerodynamic pressure – later this year. And SpaceX’s second ISS supply mission could take place as soon as next month.
Blue Origin conducted its own such ground-based escape system test late last year, pushing a capsule mock-up over 2000 feet in altitude and safely landing the vehicle by parachute. The company, founded by Amazon.com billionaire Jeff Bezos, continues toward the goal of developing rocket-powered Vertical Takeoff and Vertical Landing (VTVL) vehicles for access to suborbital and orbital space. Their newest engine, designated the BE-3, is expected to be test fired in a matter of days. And though the company is not participating in the latest stage of the CCDev program as it applies specifically to manned spaceflight development, they are obviously a significant and well-funded presence.
Boeing continues to develop detailed systems for its CST-100 spacecraft, planned to reach orbit via the reliable Atlas V rocket.
|A full-size mockup of the Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser.|
Also eventually planned to be boosted spaceward via Atlas V is Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser. An unmanned glide test of the stubby-winged vehicle is planned to take place within weeks at Edwards Air Force Base.
On Jan. 10, 2013, the Saturn V F-1 gas generator completed a 20-second hot-fire test. Engineers are completing a series of tests at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.
While these four corporate entities focus on the growing economic potential of manned commercial flight, manned space exploration remains NASA’s domain. In 2013, the space agency has been delving into a bit of “back to the future” research by studying the firing of Saturn V engine systems – the very technology used to carry NASA’s astronauts to the moon four decades ago. This is part of the foundation work for the Space Launch System, the planned future of manned exploration. This new generation spacecraft will require more thrust than is available in current boosters. Flight control tests of avionics for these new boosters are underway, with thrust control system tests taking place last week.
Finally, while not currently participating in the official manned flight efforts of CCDev, Orbital Sciences Corporation, planning the first launches of its Antares launch vehicle and Cygnus spacecraft, is an important presence. Orbital is currently focused on unmanned ISS supply missions, with a demonstration flight into orbit coming as soon as April. While SpaceX initiates its flights to the ISS from Florida, Orbital’s launch base is coastal Virginia’s Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport.
All in all, the horizon for 2013 boasts a number of events that should reflect positive spaceflight developments.