Launching into space remains difficult and dangerous enough that each and every launch is a notable event, planned and supervised by small armies. A problem during flight means almost certain destruction of both rocket and payload. The payloads launched are incredibly valuable - sometimes they are priceless one-off specialty items. In such an industry, it is axiomatic that there are an infinite number of ways something can go wrong, but only one way that it can go right. Thus, timetables are fluid and major events often pushed back, allowing more time for risk-reduction or solving a particularly knotty problem. It is a fine way to engineer something, but it can make crystal ball-gazing difficult.
That said, 2012 promises to be an eventful year for the space community. For one, the commercial space companies are moving forward in leaps and bounds.
The year will kick off with a bang as SpaceX and Orbital Sciences launch their respective capsules into orbit.
Orbital Sciences will launch the first Cygnus capsule into orbit atop the Taurus II launch vehicle. The launch will mark the first flight for both vehicles. Cygnus, which is being launched under the commercial orbital transportation services (COTS) contract, will eventually be used to resupply astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS).
SpaceX will become the first corporation to dock with ISS during the second flight of the Dragon capsule. The eagerly-anticipated flight was once two flights - the first to fly in close formation with ISS, and the second to actually dock. Despite some ongoing concerns from ISS primary operators NASA and Russia, all parties agreed to combine the flights. The mission is scheduled for February.
Sierra Nevada is on track to complete the first Dream Chaser winged orbital vehicle by mid-2012, and is likely to begin unpowered drop tests soon after. Though the platform for drop tests remains undecided, Scaled Composites' White Knight Two, the unique aircraft used to carry Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo, is a likely candidate.
Assuming no major setbacks, SpaceShipTwo will finally receive its solid/liquid hybrid engine, RocketMotorTwo, and begin the first powered flights. Before 2012 is over, the suborbital vehicle may expand the flight envelope to include its maximum altitude and speed. A second SpaceShipTwo may be finished in time to augment the flight test programme.
Further awards will be made for the third and final round of the commercial crew development (CCDev) programme to advance launch vehicles. Financial awards will likely go to some of those already chosen - think SpaceX, Blue Origin, Boeing and Sierra Nevada - as well as funding to human-rate Boeing's Atlas V. As the contract will almost certainly be shifted from the relatively loose Space Act agreements (SAA) to the more restrictive Federal acquisition regulations (FAR), few surprises are likely. However, ATK may get partial funding for the Liberty launch vehicle, which has been refused money in the past, but is subject of a recent unfunded SAA.
The Space Launch System (SLS) will begin to take shape - 2012 may in fact be a crucial year, as funding pressures, political interests and national priorities are endlessly debated. SLS may even be cancelled, as its predecessor Constellation programme was, before too much money is sunk into the launch vehicle.
China is set to launch a manned spacecraft, which will rendezvous with a craft already in orbit. Once connected, the two spacecraft will be used to test technology associated with a space station. A full space station is planned for 2020