2017 Aerospace Re-cap

January 4, 2018

2017 *was* a relatively boring year for space

SpaceX stole the show this past year, by launching an unprecedented 18 rockets. The last one was fittingly with another ten Iridium NEXT satellites, for a total of 40 Iridium satellites in 2017.  They also had a couple of other firsts, including launching the first “flight proven” first stage for the SES-10 mission last March, as well as sending a reused Dragon and first stage to the International Space Station in December.  The last Iridium flight also reused a first stage booster, so in total they reused five first stage boosters.  What’s remarkable is how routine they’re making recovery and reuse look, and it’s going to go a long way into making space affordable.

With all of those successes, however, there still were a few misses.  Neither the Falcon Heavy, nor the un-crewed Dragon 2 ended up flying this year.  Elon is quoted saying that they didn’t realize how difficult it would be to get the Falcon Heavy to work, and that “strapping three Falcon 9 cores together is tougher than it sounds”.  Who would have thought that rocket science would be difficult?  The Dragon 2 also didn’t take flight this year, however, there’s plenty of action for it, along with the Falcon Heavy, on the launch manifest for 2018.

2017 also came and went without any paying passengers riding on a Virgin Galactic or a Blue Origin sub-orbital flight.  Blue Origin got a little closer to that goal, doing a flight in December (just a week or two ago) which made it all the way up to 322,000 feet.  They also did take a passenger up on the flight, named “Mannequin Skywalker”, who seemed pretty stoic about the entire affair.

I’m going to notch this prediction up as correct, but given the glacial pace of aerospace in general, it wasn’t that far of a stretch.

There *were* a lot fewer 747s, A340s and A380s

The trend to get rid of airplanes with greater than two engines continued through 2017, and as I’m writing this, there aren’t any left flying for any major airlines in North America.  There are a few holdouts flying in Europe (I did end up flying an SAS A340 earlier last year to Copenhagen), and the Asian super carriers still have plenty, but most of these planes are being replaced by 777s, 787s, A330s, and A350s.  Airbus said that if a new order doesn’t come in from Emirates that they’re going to cancel the A380 altogether.  The old Hub-and-Spoke airline model is pretty much dead at this point, and thank goodness.  Being able to fly smaller planes, more frequently, direct to your destination is always going to be more preferable than being stuck in a terminal waiting for a connecting flight.

… and there also were a lot more narrow bodies

It was a mixed year for the beleaguered Bombardier CSeries.  Delta gave it its vote of confidence with an order for 75 planes, and options for 50 more.  After which, Boeing turned around and had the US Commerce Department slap a 300% fine on the plane accusing Bombardier of dumping planes below cost on the US market.  After which, Bombardier gave away 50.1% of the CSeries program to Airbus which is going to turn around and build planes in Alabama.  Oh, and the US International Trade Commission may drop the tariff after all because Bombardier built a total of 17 planes last year (off of their 22 plane target), and hey, it’s now like Boeing isn’t heavily subsidized, right?  Phew.

Meanwhile, Boeing keeps racking up more orders for the 737 MAX (another 175 are slated to go to flydubai.  Southwest just started taking deliveries of its 737 MAX planes (it was the US launch partner) and Boeing delivered a total of 49 planes this year. Airbus delivered 134 A320s after delivering 68 in 2016.

Orders seem to be slowing down though, with the 737 MAX topping out at 420 new orders this last year, compared to 540 orders the year before.  Airbus fared even worse in this regard with only 185 orders this year vs. 711 orders in 2016.  Both programs have huge backlogs though, with Boeing needing to deliver 4,016 planes and Airbus backlogged a whopping 5,022.

So I’m not certain if I can fully claim this one.  There definitely were more narrow bodied planes this year, but I’m baffled why Boeing decided to try and squeeze Bombardier.  I guess they didn’t predict that Bombardier would counter with giving away half of the CSeries program.  I’m not sure anyone could have predicted that.