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2018 New Space predictions, Part II: The 2018 list

So… now it is time to unveil the predictions of Amon and Weathers for 2018. Doug Weathers and I changed the format a little this year. If one or the other or even both of us thought an event is iffy but possible or even likely, we put it under a section we are calling ‘Stretch Goals.’

1) Falcon Heavy flies.

The first attempt could happen in as little as two weeks from now. There is a chance it will fail, as this is, after all, the first flight of a very large rocket with very complex structural dynamics. If the simulations and calculations are off, the three booster structure could rip itself apart. With the large number of Merlin rocket engines that have to fire, there is plenty of room for error, albeit also a great deal of redundancy. A successful flight on the first try will let many friends of ours celebrate and sleep well. A failure? Well, it is a long year. They will dust themselves off and almost certainly succeed on a second flight test.

2) A Tesla Sportster goes interplanetary.

If the first Falcon Heavy succeeds, it is likely the well tested second stage will put Elon Musk’s old car on a course to cross Mars orbit within the next year or so. It is NOT going to go to Mars. It will be on a solar elliptical orbit that crosses Earth and Mars orbits at perihelion and aphelion. It ought to be there long enough for Mars to be settled and have a vast population with large museums in which it will someday reside after being recovered by some Belter and sold to the highest bidder.

3) Falcon Heavy goes into commercial service.

If the first flight is reasonably successful, there will be at least one more flight of the vehicle this year with a profit making payload.

4) Boca Chica launch site construction slips to 2019

We both think the SpaceX private space launch facility south of Brownsville Texas on the Gulf Coast is not moving along as snappily as one would hope. We think they well be into next year before it is checked out and launch ready.

5) Dragon 2 in flight abort test

Dragon 2 is a lesser cousin to Red Dragon that will take astronauts to the space station when it is certified. Although not entirely necessary, SpaceX is going to perform an in flight abort. We feel confident that will happen this year and it will succeed. What we do not expect is that the Falcon 9 booster it is riding on will survive the emergency separation. It is a much larger booster than the Blue Origin New Shepherd, and the fact that one survived an emergency SEP test still has us gob smacked.

6) Elon Musk announces BFR launch/landing sites at IAC

The beauty of BFR is that both stages can be tested on their own in a suborbital flight mode. We know SpaceX intends to fly them short distances to prove them out. What we do not know is where those places will be. Will it be a barge launch? That seems unlikely for a first test launch although possible for a landing. Boca Chica? We do not know all the details about the pad requirements for the stages of this big mother. So we are guessing that when Elon gives us the next installment of Elon Musk and His Big Falcon Rocket, we will find out.

7) Rocket Lab enters commercial service.

We expect them to fly their second test flight within days and we expect it to succeed. Even if it does not, there is enough time for another test this year. We are rather confident they will enter revenue generating service this year.

9) Blue Origin BE-4 engine finishes testing

The BE-4 is needed for the New Glenn rocket and also for ULA’s Vulcan rocket. Both are expected to fly around 2020, so we expect they will wind up testing and focus more on production of these babies in the following year.

10) Blue Origin New Glenn starts construction

We really pondered on this one. But the evidence is there if you consider financial planning as well as engineering schedules. They have the manufacturing facility at the KSC (Kennedy Space Center) Exploration Park that is being outfitted to manufacture them. The park is run by Space Florida (the folks who killed XCOR) and it is a straight shot within CCAFS to their Pad 36, which is being prepared for it. The engines are near ready. They are calling a 2020 launch date followed by a ramp up, so they pretty much have to start building the first one by the end of this year. One has to work the bugs out of factories just like one has to work them out of rockets. And one does not spend this kind of money on facilities if they are going to then sit idle for a year.

11) Dreamchaser continues drop testing but does not fly into space.

Sierra Nevada has a contract with NASA to fly a smaller, cargo only version of their design to ISS in the 2020 time frame. It will have folding tips on the wings to fit inside a fairing, unlike the existing crew model. We do not think they are going to retire that vehicle quite yet. It makes sense to wring every bit of data out of it that they can from drop tests. So we think they will do more drop tests but hold off on putting one on an Atlas V until they have the one for the paying customer (NASA) ready for test.

12) SS2 powered flight test

This has just got to happen this year. It should have happened many months ago.

13) SS2 suborbital flight

There are really only a couple test points for engine firings short of flying to the Karman line. They will want to probe the transonic region again; and they will want to test a fairly high altitude flight to check the reaction control system and the shuttle cock mode. Once they have done those… why not give it a go?

14) Boeing CST-100 unmanned test flight

We cannot see any good reason why they will not meet their schedule and get this done this year.

15) Stratolaunch aircraft completes flight test

Since it has already begun taxi trials, we feel a full year is more than enough to test the full envelope on what is, although really, really large, just another transport aircraft. We are not betting on whether they will actually launch a rocket into orbit from it this year. In our minds that is too close to call.

16) LauncherOne flies from Mojave

We think folks have missed things that are right in front of their noses. Virgin Galactic (or the Virgin Launch subgroup) bought a 747 last year, had all of the structural changes to it made and even more notably, has the sign off on those changes from the FAA. That carrier aircraft is sitting in the Long Beach area right now.

The LauncherOne vehicle has been delivered to Mojave Spaceport. We have looked at the pictures of it and come to the conclusion that there is little or nothing they can do with it at Mojave except fly it. It is not there for pad tests since it is not a rocket that launches from a pad. So why is it there? We think the carrier aircraft will fly up there and have it loaded under the wing. They will then fuel it. You can do that in Mojave. They probably did not want to do so in the populous LA area.

Most likely scenarios are a few captive carry flights to get aerodynamic data, followed by a flight out over the Pacific. This is not a vehicle that you drop test and land. You drop it and you put it into orbit or else it joins other wreckage at the bottom of the ocean.

So… we think they are going to fly this year.


1) SpaceX flies a Bigelow B-330 into orbit on a Falcon 9

There is a Bigelow flight manifested but we do not know what for. We do know that Bob Bigelow has been waiting a decade for commercial crew service to orbit. That has been the long pole in his tent. You cannot put rental property in orbit if your customers cannot get to it. Since we expect both Boeing and SpaceX will very soon be able to deliver customers and their cargo to Low Earth Orbit, we think he is going to pull the trigger this year or next year.

2) SpaceX Dragon 2 manned flight

This is almost certainly going to happen this year, but we both went conservative on it due to the tight time line between the first test flights and the scheduled first flight to the space station. It is very likely this will happen this year or not very far into 2019.

3) Boeing CST-100 manned flight

Boeing is also running a tight time line and they cannot be seen to fall too far behind SpaceX. I am sure they would like to beat SpaceX into orbit just for company pride. Competition is a good thing. We still see a fair bit of schedule risk, and as with Dragon 2 feel they will likely fly this year and if not will fly early in 2019.

4) SpaceX launches two paying customers on a lunar free return mission.

This is the big one. It is still scheduled for this year, but it will only happen if the first Falcon Heavy flies successfully and the manned Dragon 2 flight to ISS happens on or at least close to the scheduled dates. Personally we think it more likely to happen in 2019, but we include it here because there is an outside chance Elon’s stars will align and this mission will go. We, and many others, would just love to see this happen on the 50th Anniversary of the Apollo 8 Christmas mission of December 21, 1968.

36 comments to 2018 New Space predictions, Part II: The 2018 list

  • Nicholas (Unlicenced Joker) Gray

    Whilst these are big ambitions, have you heard anything about some other space-related news items-
    1) What do you think of the controversial EMDrive?
    2) What do you know about Hydrogen-Boron Reactions? A company is claiming to have found a way to make self-sustaining reactions without gamma radiation. If so, nuclear-powered space ships could be feasible.

  • Dale Amon (Belfast, Northern Ireland/Laramie, Wy)

    Not much I could add. It needs to be tested in space. As to fusion, I recommend going to the the Polywell blog for up to date information on the many private companies working in the area. There are indeed entrants looking at aneutronic fusion.

  • JadedLibertarian

    That’s new space, but old space is still lumbering away somewhere like a zombie in a low budget horror movie. Do you think the Orion capsule will ever be completed?

    PS – If you haven’t already seen it can I draw your attention to the science and futurism YouTube channel?

    In the spirit of that channel I very much hope we’ll see the following items on Dale’s list in the next 10 – 20 years.

    A sky hook, preferably the spinning variety.

    A super-tall structure utilising active support.

    An orbital ring – watch the channel to see why these are better and cheaper than traditional orbital structures stretching up to geosynchronous orbit.

  • CaptDMO

    I’m just not seeing the part where McNealus (they make garbage trucks in the US) is developing space garbage compactors, to collect, and recycle, the astonishing amount of international garbage (and a tool bag) swirling
    around X-osphere.
    When IS the orbit decay expected to produce an expectation of “normalization” of space crap falling back into “the women and children” of THIS planet?

  • Dale Amon (Belfast, Northern Ireland/Laramie, Wy)

    Yes, I watch Isaac Arthur’s channel and have chatted with him. He’s talking far future though and I am only working a mundane prediction of developments in a particular industry for the next year. Well, perhaps not so mundane, but you get the idea. I’m dealing with real business, market share, financing and some fantasic current innovation.

    We did consider saying something about tethers as there is a lot of development going on in the area right now, mainly caused by the market change brought about by cheaper launch and the availability of small, cheap satellites. There is finally serious development work on electrodynamic tethers for example. One company is talking about having a maneuvering satellite that attaches a tether to one to be de-orbited and as it reels out the tether trades momentum. The target descends and the janitor ascends when they release the tether… but additionally they can use the Earth’s magnetic field on a charged tether to do plane changes, something that is very expensive in terms of fuel.

  • Tom D Perkins

    ” When IS the orbit decay expected to produce an expectation of “normalization” of space crap falling back into “the women and children” of THIS planet? ”

    It’s already in equilibrium and almost no one notices space junk falling.

  • CaptDMO, it happened in 2003, if you believe what television tells you.

  • G Stevens

    What about the possibilities of manufacturing in space, ie. the fictional portrayal in Artemis, and the non-fiction Made in Space efforts.

  • JadedLibertarian

    He’s talking far future though and I am only working a mundane prediction of developments in a particular industry for the next year.

    That’s why I asked for a skyhook and not a Dyson swarm 😉 Those 3 technologies I listed are the ones that require no new physics or materials to work, simply the expenditure of resources.

    Dyneema is already strong enough and light enough to make a pretty decent skyhook. Putting a couple of km of it in orbit, with some kind of station keeping mechanism, is well within current technology.

    The cost to orbit would be tiny compared to rockets alone. It’s not inconceivable that a skyhook would allow you to get a suborbital vehicle like Space Ship 2 into orbit. Although you’d perhaps struggle to get it down again 😯

  • JadedLibertarian

    Oh and in case it wasn’t obvious, I’m very enthusiastic about all the new developments in space-faring.

    I’m delighted with all you and your colleagues are doing Dale. I suspect though we won’t start seeing the sort of Buck Rogers developments we’re all hoping for until a viable path to orbit that isn’t (entirely) dependent on chemical rockets is in place. To conquer the solar system we’ll need to be able to build big things in orbit cheaply.

    That’s why I like skyhooks so much. Instead of vehicles that are 90% fuel mass and almost entirely (or nowadays partly) non-reusable, we could build much smaller rockets with much larger payloads, or even fully reusable cargo aircraft. They only need to get to the speed of the down swinging skyhook rather than orbital velocity, dock their payload and it gets into orbit by stealing momentum from the tether. The skyhook can be reboosted using ultra-efficient solar powered ion engines or (as you pointed out) an electro dynamic tether of some sort.

    Space isn’t the problem. Earth’s relatively large gravity well and dense atmosphere is the problem.

  • I’m hearing 2019 for first Stratolaunch flight. Maybe as late as fall 2019.

    Sierra Nevada officials said they expected to get all data they needed from drop flight last year. I haven’t heard any change in that position.

    If Falcon Heavy fails at liftoff or just over the pad, that probably delays the two Dragon flight tests — uncrewed and crewed — into 2019 because they’ll need time to repair the pad. I don’t think Pad 40 is configured to support Dragon crew.

    In any event, it doesn’t look like the crew Dragon flights will be completed until the end of this year. SpaceX has said they’re not going to do a lunar mission until crew Dragon is up and running.

    Bigelow is looking to attach a B330 module to the space station. NASA is weighing a number of proposals for how to use open docking ports. That decision seems to have been held up by a the year-long delay in filling the NASA administrator position. Even if Bigelow is chosen, I don’t know if that would happen this year.

    I think Bob Bigelow has said he wouldn’t launch on a Falcon 9 due to payload shroud limitations. I think it would be an Atlas V.

    Virgin Orbit has said it plans to base operations out of Mojave. The plan seems to be to load up the rocket here and fly out over the Pacific to launch.

    Also, it’s Rocket Lab. Two words, singular.

  • Dale Amon (Belfast, Northern Ireland/Laramie, Wy)

    We are only talking about flight test of the carrier aircraft, so I agree with any 2019 date for an actual launch from it.

    There are two pads (39A and 40) so I don’t think an F9H loss at launch would stop the F9 launches. It would undoubtedly delay the lunar mission and slow the launch cadence for 2018, but NASA would get priority.

    The possibility of a slip into 2019 for both CST100 and D2 is why we put them as stretch goals for 2018. The lunar mission, as I stated, is very dependant on other things being successful and it is only an outside chance they will make it. But I would love to see it happen on the Apollo 8 50th Anniversary. That would just be cool.

    The SpaceX manifest DW looked at has a Bigelow payload on it. What else would Bigelow fly on a Falcon 9?

    Yes, Virgin appears to be preparing to do just that and it looks like this year to us.

    Looking around the net, you are right about the name, but the world is confused on it and the world confused me. It happens.

  • Dale Amon (Belfast, Northern Ireland/Laramie, Wy)

    A couple things. Yes, there have been several tether tests in space, going back to the mid-eighties. Unfortunately there has not been a sustained effort in the area because it took so long to get a payload up there. That was a combination of funding, NASA’s hoops for outsiders, and the long lead time for getting a flight. All of those have changed. NASA is becoming much more user friendly, although they are still not commercial by any means… but you can work through Nanoracks and they will deal with all the bureaucracy through a well worn path they have trod for you. With the SmallSat revolution, it has become far easier for even a University to fund, build, test and fly a mission in short order. Launch opportunities are now much more flexible than they were and the costs are coming down rapidly due to the competition injected by SpaceX.

    I also note that non-chemical means of propulsion will come, but it is the drop in price and reuseability of the new generation of spaceships, soon to be led (within 5-10 years) by the SpaceX BFR, that will get us on the next rung of the ladder. When space operations become much cheaper and are every day business activities, you will see the experiments for all sorts of whacky, futurist and innovative ideas. There is a 50 year pressure head on these concepts and when the price drops enough it will be like a Texas oil well blasting into the sky. It is going to be a wild ride and those who are not prepared for it are going to be very shocked, dazed and confused by space moving from the glacial State research pace to the full on Silicon Valley race to the future.

    I will note the concepts Isaac Arthur talks about are in many cases quite old. Just to pick one that was invented by a friend of mine, the Launch Loop. It was invented by Keith Lofstrom sometime around 1987 (roughly). Some of the other propulsive concepts were tried by Aerojet in the 1950’s; some of these ideas may even have roots going back to Tsiolkovsky, VfR, ARS and others from pre-WWII research.

    To use another image… Elon Musk and others are prying the cork off a very well shook bottle of champagne, and when it pops we are going to have one *hell* of a party.

    Next Year in L5 my friends!

  • Dale Amon (Belfast, Northern Ireland/Laramie, Wy)

    Fixed the Rocket Lab name btw.

  • I have heard the Stratolaunch aircraft will not fly until sometime in 2019.

    SpaceX has two launch pads in Florida, but I believe only 39A is configured for human flights. Remember that Pad 40 was out of commission for more than a year after a single Falcon 9 failure. A Falcon Heavy goes up at 39A you could end up with a similar situation. I don’t know what contingencies exist for keeping crew on track if that were to happen. Maybe they could fly uncrewed test flight from Pad 40.

    NASA would get priority? One would hope.

  • Dale Amon (Belfast, Northern Ireland/Laramie, Wy)

    If they are saying they are not going to continue the flight testing through take off, there is something very strange going on. They obviously have all the controls in place for engine runups and a taxi shows the flight controls are basically there. The airframe and gear look good, although gear retraction has brought bad days to many a test article. I cannot see anything that is sufficiently ‘not ready’ to keep them from flying. I’ll have to withhold judgement. We’ll see what develops.

  • Dale Amon (Belfast, Northern Ireland/Laramie, Wy)

    G Stevens: There are indeed important things happening in space manufacturing this year, but they are not quite at the level we wanted for this article. When the folks at Made In Space tell me they are going to start building structures on the lunar surface, they will get on the list. And when my friends at DSI project an actual asteroid mission to test their hardware, you had better believe they will be included.

    The problem with prediction sets is that it doesn’t really show all the little things happening which are causing feedback that keeps the tide rising. The fall in launch costs and the increase in flight availability makes more small things possible; the more small things happen the more network effects you get and the bigger the base is upon which to base new business plans, which means more launch customers, which means lower launch costs…

    I’d have to spend far more time than I have available if I were to give you a true and full picture of just how much is happening right now and what is coming soon. There is something happening almost every day now. Even those of us who make this our day job cannot keep up with it.

  • EdMJ

    Exciting stuff Dale, thanks for keeping us informed. To infinity, and beyond!

    G Stevens, what did you think of Artemis? I was a bit underwhelmed, I guess it was always going to be hard following up on The Martian. I liked the moon tech stuff, but wasn’t that into the character and plot. I preferred Luna: New Moon overall. And Seveneves as well.

    Space nerds might like “Pillar to the Sky” by William Forstchen as well, very pro-business/Libertarian/Objectivist themed novel about building a space elevator.

  • Mr Ed

    Earth’s relatively large gravity well and dense atmosphere is the problem.

    Well it keeps the majority of meteors from peppering us, and gives us nice breathable air. I would like to thank Dale for his postings, it is heartening to read about the progress that is being made, and the fantastic ingenuity that goes into it. If this hadn’t been posted here, it would have totally escaped my notice.

  • JadedLibertarian

    I think we can all agree we enjoy breathing and not being shredded by space debris Mr Ed 😀

    But from the point of view of getting things into space, Earth’s atmosphere and gravity suck.

    Unless we get to the point we have a decent space elevator or orbital ring, it’s actually cheaper to fly to the moon or a near earth asteroid, mine what you need and transport it back to low Earth orbit than it would be to just raise everything you need off Earth’s surface. The costs are incurred by lifting things off this planet, lifting things off other bodies is much less problematic.

    That’s why revisiting the moon is so important. Manufacturing ships and space stations from lunar material would be far less costly than building them on Earth and lifting them into orbit.

    They’d be better too. A hull made out of Mooncrete (lunar regolith concrete) would be an awesome radiation shield – far better than anything we could economically lift off of Earth.

  • Dale Amon (Belfast, Northern Ireland/Laramie, Wy)

    One thing I have been pushing for the last couple decades is that in the private sector we do not have a space program, we have a space economy. ULA and Blue Origin are pushing for the Earth-Moon economy. ULA is on record with their cisLunar 1000 program in which a thousand people are living and working in space by 2030. They are not talking about their own employees, they are pushing for an entire economic sphere that includes Luna.

    But the thing about markets and economies is they don’t stay in bounds. We’ll see Elon heading off to Mars, DSI sending robotic mining craft to asteroids, telescopes on the back side of Luna, industrial facilities in low orbit, giant platforms in geostationary orbits to consolidate comsats into repairable and updatable clusters, solar sails and large ion engines under test, all sorts of interesting and off the wall ideas with emDrives and Mach drives. I’d say the sky is the limit, except it isn’t any more.

  • On the Dream Chaser (two words, by the way)…

    Sierra Nevada announced today that the glide flight had met the final paid milestone in their commercial crew contract. They’re about four years behind schedule, but done is done. So, they get the money from NASA and the space agency is happy, which means they don’t have to do any more glide flights. They’ve done two, the only problem with the last one seems to be the landing gear failing to deploy. Unless something changes radically in terms of ship design, that should be it.

    Yeah, I’ve heard they’re having some issues with Stratolaunch that would delay first flight well into 2019. Build the world’s largest aircraft by wingspan and you run into some of the world’s biggest problems with flying it. We’ll see if that intel holds up. Perhaps they’ll figure out a way of doing it earlier.

  • Dale Amon

    It will be interesting to see where SN goes. They like having the contract, but they seem to be in this for keeps like the rest of us. If I were Mark Sirangelo, I’d try to squeeze the squeel out of that pig.

  • Dale Amon

    FWIW, Falcon Heavy pad test is now official for next week. Launch is targeted for before the end of the month.

  • Dale Amon

    NickM: Skylon is interesting but it is a difficult new technology and it is a very long way from a heat exchanger working in ground test to a full rocket engine that uses it. I would guess that if their funding stays in the large numbers and they keep at it, they might fly something reasonable before the end of the twenties. They might be able to jump into the game at that point, but I do not see them as relevant to the market in the next 5+ years.

  • Dale Amon

    For those unfamiliar with Alan Bond and his life long efforts in this area, here is a short interview and video from 2012. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wg2T7MUULZQ

  • Nicholas (Unlicenced Joker) Gray

    I read a small piece in the paper today about SpaceX having a successful launch. The payload seemed to be a secret, but the main body of the rocket made it back to Earth to be reused. Congrats all round.

  • Nicholas (Unlicenced Joker) Gray

    Update- the payload perished, but the rocket is alright! You can’t have everything…

  • JadedLibertarian

    Or is that 😎 what they want you to believe 😎 Nicholas?

  • Laird

    Wait, Skylon isn’t the robot net from the Terminator movies?

  • Nicholas (Unlicenced Joker) Gray

    So, the Pentagon actually has a new satellite in orbit, and help out their NASA friends by discrediting private enterprise! NASA should be rebranded NASTY.