The Year of the Four Spaceships: Final Report

Crew Dragon docked at the International Space Station. (Credit: NASA webcast)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Back in February, I went out on a limb and predicted that 2020 could be the Year of the Four Spaceships, with SpaceX, Boeing, Blue Origin, and Virgin Galactic and reaching major milestones in human spaceflight. (See 2020: Four Spaceships & the End of America’s Cosmic Groundhog Day)

With the disruption and deaths caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, it wasn’t the easiest year to get things done. Keeping that in mind, let’s see how the companies did in 2020. (Spoiler Alert: they came up a little short.)

SpaceX

Crew-1 astronauts in the Crew Dragon capsule after reaching orbit. (Credit: NASA webcast)

2020 Objectives: fly astronauts aboard Crew Dragon on the Demo-2 flight test to the International Space Station (ISS) and return them safely to Earth; begin commercial flights with the Crew-1 mission.

Result: Success

SpaceX broke a nearly nine-year drought of crewed orbital launches from U.S. soil by sending Demo-2 astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to the space station on May 30. They returned to Earth on Aug. 2 after nearly 64 days in space.

On Nov. 15, a Falcon 9 launched the Crew-1 commercial mission to ISS. NASA astronauts Mike Hopkins, Victor Glover and Shannon Walker were aboard along with Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi. The mission will last six months.

Despite the pandemic, SpaceX launched 26 times this year, shattering its previous record of 21 launches in 2018.

Boeing

Starliner OFT-1 capsule after landing at White Sands Missile Range. (Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls)

2020 Objectives: conduct a flight test of the Starliner crew vehicle to the space station with astronauts aboard; begin commercial flights to ISS.

Result: Nope

The uncrewed Starliner flight test in December 2019 failed to reach the space station and suffering software and communications failures that could have destroyed it on two occasions. The resulting investigation found numerous shortcomings in Boeing’s quality control.

Boeing is now scheduled to repeat the uncrewed mission to ISS on March 31, 2021. A second test with astronauts aboard would follow later in the year if the flight is successful.

Blue Origin

Blue Origin’s New Shepard reusable, suborbital rocket. (Credits: Blue Origin)

2020 Objective: complete New Shepard uncrewed flight test program; fly people aboard for the first time.

Result: Gradatim Denique (Step by Step, Eventually)

Blue Origin managed a single uncrewed New Shepard flight test with scientific experiments aboard on Oct. 13. It was the 13th flight of the system in a test program that began on April 29, 2015.

Additional flight tests with experiments and then test subjects are planned for the year ahead. Blue Origin has not provided a schedule for these flights.

Virgin Galactic

The curvature of the Earth from SpaceShipTwo. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

2020 Objectives: complete VSS Unity‘s flight test program; begin commercial suborbital tourism from Spaceport America in New Mexico with Richard Branson aboard in time for his 70th birthday on July 18.

Result: No blastoff for birthday boy Branson

On Feb. 22, 2019, VSS Unity touched down at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California after its second flight above 50 miles (80.4 km) in two months. The path seemed clear to complete the flight test program and begin flying suborbital tourists.

It took nearly 22 months before VSS Unity would attempt another powered flight. On Dec. 12, the vehicle’s rocket engine failed to fire, resulting in an aborted suborbital flight test and a quick return to the runway at Spaceport America in New Mexico. The company said the engine was shut down automatically after the computer lost contact with it.

Virgin Galactic is planning to conduct three more flight tests before beginning to fly tourists. These include:

  • a repeat of the aborted Dec. 12 flight carrying a load of scientific experiments;
  • a suborbital flight with four test subjects in the passenger cabin to evaluate the experience for ticket holders; and,
  • a final test during which Branson will evaluate the experience before commercial flights begin.

If all these flights go well, then commercial service will begin sometime in 2021.

Fool Me Twice…Won’t Get Fooled Again

My batting average on predicting human spaceflight this year was .250, which is not bad for baseball but awful by every other measure. I think Punxsutawney Phil has a better record of predicting the arrival of spring.

Will Boeing, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic meet their goals in 2021? Will NASA’s Space Launch System finally send Orion around the moon?

Not going there. Not this time.