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Spaceflight in 2017, part 1: Earth-centric edition

Posted by Jason Davis

29-12-2016 6:04 CST

Topics: mission status

Welcome to the first half of The Planetary Society's look-ahead at the coming year in spaceflight! I'll be talking about Earth-centric highlights today, and Emily will post about robotic solar system missions tomorrow. 

But before we get started, I have to note Emily gets the honor of talking about what would be at the top of my list if I were writing both parts of this series. Let's check Twitter to see if it's still happening:

Yep, Cassini's 12-year stint at Saturn is still scheduled to end in 2017. And while that's a bummer—Jupiter will be the only outer planet left with a robotic probe—I can't wait to see what Saturn's rings look like from the inside facing out, after Cassini dives closer to the planet than ever before.

Anyway, on to 2017 space news that I'll be watching in my reporting domain.

International Space Station

There are five ISS crew expeditions scheduled for 2017, consisting of 16 astronauts from four space agencies. Seven crew members will be from Roscosmos, six come from NASA, two from ESA and one from JAXA. Russia recently announced they were lowering their crew complement from three to two; that change goes into effect in March. This, combined with the loss of a Progress cargo ship, and uncertainty surrounding SpaceX's return-to-flight plans, makes the ISS schedule a bit fluid.

I compiled the Expeditions chart below from multiple sources; things seem to get fuzzy in the second half of the year and I had to estimate a little.

ISS Expeditions in 2017 (estimated)

Jason Davis / The Planetary Society

ISS Expeditions in 2017 (estimated)
The ISS crew rotation schedule for 2017, compiled from multiple sources. Where sources diverge, estimates are used.

I also compiled a fresh Twitter list of all the astronauts who will be in space during 2017. All NASA, ESA and JAXA astronauts are accounted for, but none of the cosmonauts seem to be on Twitter. 

LightSail 2 and SpaceX

LightSail 2 and its partner spacecraft, Prox-1, have a spot reserved on the second flight of SpaceX's Falcon Heavy, which will be carrying the STP-2 payload for the U.S. Air Force. The Heavy won't debut until at least the middle of the year, after the Falcon 9 gets up and running again, and our most optimistic launch date for LightSail is Fall 2017. 

We'll soon be integrating LightSail 2 into Prox-1 at the Air Force Research Laboratory in Albequerque, New Mexico. It should be a lot of fun watching the two SmallSats come together for the first time.

While we're on the subject of SpaceX, the latest NASA commercial crew schedule shows the company's new Crew Dragon going on its first uncrewed test flight this year. SpaceX and Boeing crewed flights have slipped to 2018, but we still might get to see the enhanced Dragon in action.

Falcon Heavy interstage


Falcon Heavy interstage
A SpaceX Falcon Heavy interstage is prepared at the company's rocket factory.

International space news

India is aiming to debut its new GSLV Mark III rocket in January. The Mark III had a successful test flight in 2014, and now it's almost ready for regular service. India refers to the Mark III as a heavy class rocket, though by worldwide standards, it's still pretty light-lift: 8 metric tons to low-Earth orbit. 

China is set to perform an uncrewed, on-orbit fueling demonstration of its Tiangong-2 space station in April. This is a final, critial milestone before the country starts building its multi-module station in 2018.

Goodbye, Delta II

This year will likely see the final two launches of United Launch Alliance's iconic, Delta II rocket. Its final missions from Vandenberg Air Force Base are the JPSS-1 and ICESat 2 satellites in the second half of 2017. The Delta II has been in service since 1989, but has gradually been supplanted by the Delta IV and Atlas V. 

Delta II with NPP satellite

Jason Davis

Delta II with NPP satellite
A Delta II rocket sits on the pad at Vandenberg Air Force Base prior to the launch of the NPP Earth science satellite in 2011.

SLS / Orion

This is a big year for SLS and Orion, which are still working toward a 2018 test flight to lunar orbit. According to a recent milestone schedule presented at a NASA advisory committee meeting, the SLS core stage green run at Stennis Space Center is still on track for December 2017. For that to happen, the hydrogen and oxygen tanks must be joined, and the vehicle's four RS-25 engines need to be installed. The completed core stage will ship by barge to Stennis, where it will be mounted in the center's refurbished B-2 test stand for an all-up engine test.

That'll be quite a sight—I plan to be there for the big event.

Stennis test stand B-2

Jason Davis / The Planetary Society

Stennis test stand B-2
The Space Launch System's core stage will be installed on test stand B-2 (left side) for a full-duration firing in late 2017.

Also in 2017, the Orion command and service modules should be joined together and shipped to Plum Brook Station in Ohio for thermal vaccum chamber testing.

In the meantime, the big rocket's dual boosters should be completed and shipped to Kennedy Space Center, where most of the ground systems should be ready for integration testing in 2018.  

See other posts from December 2016


Or read more blog entries about: mission status


Arbitrary: 12/29/2016 07:22 CST

Maybe NASA will skip the Orion. Dragon is much more capable, safer, cheaper, lighter and most of all it exists as a hardware rather than as a power point dream. I doubt that ESA will deliver any service module to Orion, they have no experience in that kind of business. International cooperation almost always means failure and cancellation. Best case hope is that it only gets several times more expensive and delayed by a decade, but that is way too optimistic. The decision to involve ESA means that Orion is very unlikely to ever fly. And its design really has no rational purpose or motivation. SLS is one of a kind until private alternatives deliver the same capability at a tenth of the cost. But Orion has no useful niche even to begin with.

VirgilSamms: 12/29/2016 09:06 CST

The best scenario is that NASA decides to shut down the ISS and the commercial crew and cargo programs as a waste of time and resources, dump the Absurd Retrieval Mission, and indefinitely shelve the J2M. Orion and the SLS going back to the Moon is the only possibility for the U.S. to have a real space program again. The NewSpace fans are at this point hating the SLS as their worst nightmare because a lunar return essentially dumps their entire business plan in the trashcan. Where it belongs.

Haruki: 12/29/2016 12:22 CST

I agree with VirgilSamms. I see no point in human spaceflight, just a waste of resources. Instead, go with space telescopes, space observatories. Send orbiters around each of Jupiter's moons, each of Saturn's moons, each of Uranus' moons, each of Neptune's moons. Send landers, send rovers. Do something! -- The first (and last) mission to Uranus and Neptune was launched on August 20, 1977. That was more than 39 years ago. We are still waiting for the next one. Please do something. (what a waste the Space Shuttle and the Space Station have been..)

VirgilSamms: 12/29/2016 12:41 CST

"I agree with VirgilSamms. I see no point in human spaceflight,-" Actually, you completely disagree with me. I see no point in robot probes and pure science when humankind has a critical need to create off world colonies as insurance against extinction events. I strongly believe Human Space Flight is the first priority and pure science is down the list.

Karen: 12/30/2016 04:18 CST

"Critical"? What threatens the human species with imminent universal destruction with any sort of practical short-term probability? And it's probes that lay the groundwork for potential colonization of other worlds by gathering the data essential for it, so I'd think you'd be glad. You're not going to land a huge colonial transport without having gathered detailed atmospheric profiles. You're not going to take part in ISRU without an extensive program of geologic exploration. You're not going to be able to size shielding or solar power generation without radiation and solar flux profile gathering. And on and on. Study of other planets' also helps us understand Earth better - atmosphere, surface and interior. Venus in particular is a prime candidate in this regard, with an atmosphere, surface and interior all poorly explained by the current models that we use to model the Earth. Studies of primordial bodies helps us understand what materials formed Earth, seeded it, and continue to impact it - while telescopes help us identify and study things that may impact it (potentially severely) in the future. Probes have dramatically increased our knowledge about potential places to find life, which would be of immeasurable value in opening up new chemical synthesis pathways. Even studies of exotic prebiotic chemistries elsewhere in our system poses a huge potential reservoir of discoveries - for example, we know little about the sort of low-temperature organic synthesis that occurs on Titan, but the theoretical studies are tantalizing (check out the amazing diversity of cyanide polymer chemistry in Titan conditions for example), and the results could again open up new chemistry possibilities on Earth. Humans will eventually colonize other worlds. But you have to lay the groundwork first. And robotic probes are the cheapest and most effective way to do this.

LocalFluff: 12/30/2016 01:15 CST

@Karen I think that it is "critical" because we can do it now. For the first time in 4,000,000,000 years of life on Earth, we can go to space. Tomorrow maybe a nuclear war or some other disaster closes this unique window. It is critical for us to go up there now while we can, because we can. We humans are the messenger of life in the universe. That's enough of an argument. @VirgilSamms The ISS (like the space shuttle) might be a disappointment compared to high expectations. But it is so because even low Earth orbit has turned out to be much more challenging than expected. A week long picnic to the Moon turns out to be easier than decades of human presence in orbit. Especially given the crazy political framework of it all. A lot has been learned and will be very useful going forward. And amazingly no one has died, or even been hurt, in the ISS project. Space isn't just for suicidal test pilots any more. That's great progress! It might look like a small step, but it's a safe step and that attracts commercial interest, which is a big boom. @Haruki One field geologist, even in a space suit, would've accomplished what the Curiosity rover has in several years, in just a couple of days. Compare the drillings and travel length. And a human on site might easily fix a problem with the or with dust covered solar panels. The bots just helplessly wait for the next day's batch of commands, and are boringly unimaginative and lack initiative. Helpless vulnerable little primadonnas sitting around waiting for their prince.

Karen: 12/31/2016 02:23 CST

We could also make 100 meter statue of Elvis coated in marshmallows now, or eat a bag of pinecones. Being able to do something "now" doesn't make them critical. Nuclear war would not wipe out all life on Earth, or even all human technology, although it would push us back decades and significantly decrease the planet's population, both from direct and indirect deaths. But it would not be an extinction event. Don't get me wrong, I absolutely do support the human settlement of other planets. But I see no reason to consider it to be some "must do so right this instant!" thing. I see it as an "as soon as possible" thing. I want first to make sure that we can do so affordably, and in a manner that will be sustainable. If you rush these sorts of things, you're likely to end up with something that you can't sustain once the public loses interest. Re, a field geologist vs. curiosity: latency is utterly irrelevant when your budget is such that you can only launch spacecraft once every couple years to a given destination. Who cares if the data comes back in a couple days or several years? Ultimately a field geologist's capabilities are limited by the exact same things a robotic probe is. They can't do mass spectrometry with their eyes or drill a borehole in rock with their fingers or whatnot; they're entirely dependent on the tools they bring. And hand tools tend to be a lot heavier per unit capability than ones built into a robotic arm. Beyond this, the cost of putting the field geologist there and keeping them alive there is orders of magnitude more than that of the robotic probe. Meaning that you could launch orders of magnitude more probes, with orders of magnitude more instruments (aka, the things that actually gather the useful data) for the same price. As for the whole "fixing things" issue, if you look at what's doomed Mars missions, the vast majority could not have been saved if there was a person onboard. Beyond that, a manned mission vastly...

Karen: 12/31/2016 02:33 CST

... increases complexity, and thus risk. The most likely serious thing to "fail" on a manned mission is the humans themselves, insofar as a whole wide range of less serious failures (of systems not at all required for robotic probes) will kill them. And a dead person doesn't fix things. Want to get dust off solar panels? Put a wiper on it. But it goes to show how little NASA values such a cleaning, in that such things have been considered but not been deemed to be worth the weight. If you can't justify the weight of a little panel wiper, how can you possibly justify the weight of a human being and the tremendous supply chains and habitation hardware needed to keep them alive? IMHO, if you want to make a case for latency, you'd have a much better argument for Venus than Mars. On Mars, there's nothing wrong with sitting around and waiting for the next day's commands - and you likely need to charge up your batteries either way. But that's not the case with Venus. If you have a surface probe, whether it's a one-off shot or a bellows balloon/phase change balloon that can make multiple descents and ascents, you have very limited time at the surface. From Earth, your time at the surface will be over before you could relay and respond to any commands; a probe's thermal inertia plus insulation generally gives you only an hour or two of surface time. But from Low Venus Orbit or an airship in the middle cloud layer, you could control a surface probe in real time. And that is a big difference.

LocalFluff: 12/31/2016 06:06 CST

Karen, I wouldn't mind a marshmallow statue of Elvis, but spreading life is a more mainstream thing for life to do. Life is everywhere on Earth, from the clouds in the sky to the deepest hole ever drilled. That it has taken four billion years for life to get its ass up in the sky is a disgrace. But now we do it. Who knows for how long we can do it. Even a poorly conceived but undramatic political decision could suddenly put it on hold for ever. Our ability to do it is worthless if we do not act upon it. The motivation for it is very brittle, some prefer filling in potholes instead. This is a very delicate ability that the most brilliant humans, the pinnacle of life, now manage to balance into existence. Just barely. I certainly realize that this ability is an obligation, not just for some individuals or for the human kind, but for all of life on Earth. We are all a very tight family, you find half of human DNA even in virus, and we have the opportunity to make our descendants survive practically until the end of time. Billions of years from now, archaeologists in a Milky Way (or then Milkydromeda) flourishing with life will trace their origin to the cooling white dwarf remnant of the Sun. I think Christianity is great, however, its story of creation and God's power pales in comparison with what we can do. Reality is greater than our imagination. But our actions can master all of reality. We don't know why we must settle space. That's why it is called exploration (literally meaning "outflowing" as in crying tears). It is about our ignorance. We must do it to find out why. We mustn't overestimate our intellect and current understanding, we just have to do what we can do. Something beyond intelligence and civilization will come out of it, like intelligence and civilization emerged out of nowhere. It's hopeless to try to second guess how that will turn out. All we can do is to stumble into the darkness. All of life will laud us for it eternally.

LocalFluff: 12/31/2016 06:29 CST

Karen, again Less philosophical now. Humans in space instead of robots is a bigger investment, that's quite true. But it gives a better payoff, a better science return per dollar invested. And add to that the works humans could perform to build infrastructure in space and take advantage of resources out there. You need people on site to do that. It is still science fiction to have robots replace humans other than in a tiny fraction of what needs to be done, and even then under close supervision of humans. Just look at how houses are being built on Earth. It is a mess of improvised handiwork, because that is actually the most efficient way to get it done. Trying to predict everything that might happen and design a robot for it is fiction. Just look how very improductive Curiosity is compared with a human geologist. Sure, there's a risk to life for the astronauts. But there are people willing to take that risk. It should be up to them to make that decision (I would like to, if I had been qualified). Curiosity and the next Mars rover together cost about $6 billion. And maybe as much more would be required to get a sample return to Earth (in order for humans to analyze it, because robots cannot). Ten times that budget could achieve a hundred times more with a crewed mission. The light travel time delay could be handled as in the video clip below (I think it is brilliant). But the problem is the power supply. Curiosity only has 1/6 of a horse power electric power. It is a sloth. And no one is there to simply unscrew its drill and remove the debris that is threatening to shortcut the entire bot. To get big results a big mission are required and then humans are a logical part of it.

Jason Davis: 12/31/2016 09:31 CST

Hi everyone, Please don't discuss other users' personal identities. I'll update our comment policy to reflect this. Thanks, Jason

VirgilSamms: 12/31/2016 07:13 CST

"Critical"? What threatens the human species with imminent universal destruction with any sort of practical short-term probability?" Asteroid or comet impact, volcanic epics, engineered pathogens- those are at the top of the list. "We don't know why we must settle space." Refer to the top of the list.

Karen: 01/01/2017 04:14 CST

"Asteroid or comet impact, volcanic epics, engineered pathogens- those are at the top of the list. " None of those things bear the combination of "imminent" and "universal". All are either grossly improbable, or would leave vastly more people and infrastructure on Earth than would exist on a Mars colony in the foreseeable future. Hence my point about there not being some sort of "urgency". Again: I support colonization. But I want to make sure it's done correctly, in a way that will prove sustainable, rather than just being rushed because of some false claim of imminent need. Sustainability is really key. The public tends to lose interest in expensive projects within a decade or so. So your cost structure needs to vastly reduce versus the initial expenses, and quickly. IMHO this is a reality most colonization proponents don't want to face; they act like the public is going to be happy pouring huge amounts of money into the project for decades at a time. They're not. And let's not kid ourselves: it *is* vast sums of money we're talking here. Re, Curiosity and the bit: that doens't change one thing that I wrote above. That there are far more things that could kill crew than can kill Curiosity. That you could launch 1-2 orders of magnitude more Curiosities than you could one manned mission, to every corner of Mars (or the rest of the solar system), with every scientific instrument under the sun. It's simply not justified from a science standpoint. There are robotic solutions that are vastly to stuck debris, dusty panels, etc that are *vastly* cheaper and lighter than humans. Even those aren't worth the cost.

VirgilSamms: 01/01/2017 05:45 CST

"None of those things bear the combination of "imminent" and "universal". All are either grossly improbable, or would leave vastly more people and infrastructure on Earth than would exist on a Mars colony in the foreseeable future." Some people are quite happy to gamble with other peoples lives and apparently even with the survival of the human race. Typical that we might go extinct because of such stupidity. Only intelligent beings can think critically about inevitable events and realize their optimism bias is the greatest threat to continuing as a species. As for Mars being a colony that is not what I said- Mars is a dead end. Artificial spinning hollow moons are the solution arrived at by Gerard K. O'Neill in the 70's. You say they are not "imminent" or "universal" do you know? You do not. What is true is that a big enough rock or chunk of ice would destroy the human race and a sudden volcanic epic or engineered pathogen would also kill us off. Anyone finding excuses not to take out an insurance policy on our species is probably pushing a personal agenda.

Torbjörn Larsson: 01/03/2017 05:17 CST

Cassini, noooo! Re the discussion on exploration strategy I find Karen level headed. Though I disagree on one point. Manned exploration means more investment but also faster return, making for more flexibility and larger returns. But current investments seems too small to make it realistic. Generally I don't see how speculation in extinction risks are realistic. The biosphere has survived 4 billion years, it is a robust system. Humanity has survived 3 million years, and our current species is quickly evolving due to our population size - we won't last long classified as H. sapiens specifically. Space travel won't hinder that. @Arbitrary: You are comparing apples and pears and adding unsupported speculation on top. The comparison you make is between a current LEO cargo craft or a future LEO manned craft with a cis-lunar craft that was tested in orbit 2014 (albeit not with cis-lunar capabilities). Besides the nebulous speculation, you also you claimed that making a down-scaled version of the 100 % and many times successful LEO ATM cargo and tanker craft is somehow related to no experience.

Torbjörn Larsson: 01/03/2017 05:21 CST

I admit I didn't read through the thread in detail. After posting I read the last comment with its personal attack/poisoning of the well/conspiracy theory. I certainly didn't want to make it seem that this was an acceptable ordinary thread to respond to in any way! My excuses.

VirgilSamms: 01/03/2017 06:30 CST

There was no personal attack "Torbjorn", and only someone in a certain group of people would use the expression "poison the well" to personally attack me because I am the only person that ever uses it on space blog comments. Very obvious what is going on: "Astroturfing is the practice of masking the sponsors of a message or organization (e.g., political, advertising, religious or public relations) to make it appear as though it originates from and is supported by a grassroots participant(s)."

VirgilSamms: 01/03/2017 06:46 CST

The agenda being pushed on almost all of these space forums is "NewSpace". Anyone who has been reading space blog comment sections for a couple years knows this without a shadow of a doubt. The goal is to advertise the flagship company and the promoted goal of it's founder- to colonize Mars. The main products of this company are the falcon rocket and the dragon capsule. The dogma surrounding NewSpace is really about making sure there is no alternative to those products. The NASA Space Launch System (SLS) and a lunar return are the worst problem for NewSpace and anything or anyone having to do with them is attacked. Screaming cheap exposes the fan club that has taken over all public discourse. NewSpace always falls back on calling the evil "oldspace" aerospace corporations corrupt and too expensive. Propellant depots have been hyped for years as making SHLV's unecessary. Look for this in 2017.

VirgilSamms: 01/04/2017 06:59 CST and whadyaknow!......propellant depots first on the list of an article that is basically a NewSpace advertisement.

WLKOHLER: 02/01/2017 06:28 CST

It never fails to appall and disgust me the lack of vision of so many in TPS! It is CRITICAL now that we begin moving off of this planet simply because if we do not we will overpopulate(aren't we already), consume all the resources needed to go into space, destroy earths wonderful forests, wild life species, oceans and ecology and in general any good quality of life. Population control forced or coerced is NOT the answer. Colonization is! It will take a long time to colonize Mars or the Moon and move any significant number of people to those or any other off planet colonies. We have had, currently have and need to be using our capabilities to get moving into the Cosmos. Those who have the ideas and any tech at all to prepare for travel beyond the solar system need to be supported and encouraged to help get the job done yesterday. This is all way overdue as far as I and many others not in government are concerned.

bolide: 02/10/2017 01:11 CST

Expending the resources needed to move any significant number of people off this planet would itself certainly do more damage than not doing so. Our population does have to be reined in, and if we don't do it nature will. But that can be accomplished without coercion.

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