Launch 2020: A Busy Year Filled with Firsts in the Face of COVID-19 Pandemic

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying the company’s Crew Dragon spacecraft is launched from Launch Complex 39A on NASA’s SpaceX Demo-2 mission to the International Space Station with NASA astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley aboard, Saturday, May 30, 2020, at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida (Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls & Joel Kowsky)

SpaceX dominated, China surged and Russia had another clean sheet as American astronauts flew from U.S. soil again in a year of firsts.

First in a series

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, 2020 was a very busy launch year with a number of firsts in both human and robotic exploration. A total of 114 orbital launches were attempted, with 104 successes and 10 failures. It was the same number of launches that were conducted in 2018, with that year seeing 111 successes, two failures and one partial failure.

The United States and China finished first and second with 44 and 39 launch attempts, respectively. Russia finished third with 17 successful flights. The three nations combined for a total of 100 launch attempts or 87.7 percent of the total. Europe launched five times, Japan four, India and Iran two times apiece, and Israel once.

It was a year of firsts and major milestones:

  • U.S. astronauts launched from American soil for the first time in nearly nine years since the retirement of the space shuttle;
  • NASA certified a new spacecraft, Crew Dragon, to carry astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS);
  • SpaceX launched astronauts to the station on two occasions;
  • SpaceX introduced an upgraded resupply ship based on the Crew Dragon vehicle;
  • SpaceX launched the first stages of Falcon 9 boosters a record seven times on two occasions;
  • SpaceX notched its 100th successful launch in October and landed its 70th first-stage booster in December;
  • SpaceX launched more than 800 Starlink satellites designed to provide high-speed Internet to any location on Earth;
  • OneWeb also began deployment of its satellite Internet constellation;
  • a nominally private Chinese company conducted a successful launch of a new booster, marking the second such flight in the nation’s history;
  • China tested prototypes of new crew and reusable spacecraft;
  • China accomplished the Chang’e-5 sample return mission to the moon;
  • China completed deployment of its Beidou satellite navigation system, a rival to the U.S. Global Positioning System (GPS) and Europe’s Galileo constellation;
  • Europe’s Vega spacecraft performed its first rideshare mission;
  • eight new boosters made their first flights, accounting for half of the 10 launch failures;
  • three missions were sent to Mars, including the first ones by China and the United Arab Emirates (UAE); and
  • the first ever orbital launch attempt originated from Mojave Air and Space Port in California.

Bryce Tech reports there were 41 commercial launches last year. SpaceX and Rocket Lab conducted 32 of the launches. Europe and Russia combined for eight commercial launches, and Japan flew one commercial mission.

Small satellites made up 1,202 or 94 percent of the 1,282 spacecraft launched in 2020, according to Bryce Tech. SpaceX launched 937 small satellites, including 833 spacecraft for its Starlink broadband constellation. Small satellites made up 239,150 kg (527,236 lb) or 43% of the total mass of 554,280 kg (1,221,978 lb) launched last year.

Now, let’s take a closer look at who launched in 2020.

A Delta IV Heavy launches the NROL-44 satellite. (Credit: ULA)

LAUNCHES BY NATION

U.S. companies made 44 launch attempts with 40 successes and four failures. It was America’s highest launch total of the 21st century, ahead of the 34 successful launches with no failures that American providers conducted in 2018.

China tied its own record by attempting 39 launches, with 35 successes and four failures. China compiled a record of 38 successes and one failure in 2018.

Orbital Launches by Nation, 2020

NationSuccessesFailuresTotalPercent of Total Launches
USA*4044438.6
China3543934.2
Russia+1701714.9
Europe4154.4
Japan4043.5
India2021.75
Iran1121.75
Israel1010.87
Total10410114100
* Includes Electron launches by U.S.-based Rocket Lab from New Zealand.
+ Includes launches of Soyuz rockets from French Guiana managed by Arianespace.

Russia’s 17 launches was its lowest total of the 21st century. On the bright side, it was the second year in a row that Russia finished with a clean sheet after suffering launch failures for more than a decade.

Europe finished the year with four successful launches and one failure as the Vega booster crashed for the second time in three flights. It was Europe’s lowest number of launch attempts since 2013 when it successfully completed five missions.

Vega begins its ascent from the Spaceport in French Guiana, carrying CubeSats and microsatellites on a flight to validate Europe’s innovative Small Spacecraft Mission Service. (Credit: Arianespace)

It was a typical year for Japan, which successfully launched four times. Japan has averaged 3.8 launches annually over the past decade.

Hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, India managed only two launches of the Polar Space Launch Vehicle (PSLV). India launched between five and seven times over the previous five years.

Two countries that don’t launch very often — Israel and Iran — orbited satellites in 2020. One Iranian launch succeeded while another failed. Israel’s lone launch of a military satellite was a success.

INTERNATIONAL SPACE STATION MISSIONS
2020 Record: 11-0
2019 Record: 14-1

Crew Dragon astronauts on their way to the spacecraft. (Credit: NASA)

SpaceX broke a nearly nine-year gap in crewed orbital launches from U.S. soil on May 30 when the company’s Falcon 9 rocket sent NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Douglas Hurley to the ISS aboard a Crew Dragon spacecraft.

The Demo-2 mission was the first time astronauts had flown aboard a Crew Dragon. Behnken and Hurley successfully splashed down off the coast of Florida on Aug. 2 after nearly 64 days in space. The flight marked SpaceX’s final development milestone under NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. The path was clear for SpaceX to begin carrying astronauts to the station on a commercial basis.

International Space Station Missions, 2020

DateLaunch VehicleSpacecraftLaunch SiteMissionNation
02/15/20AntaresCygnus NG-13Wallops IslandISS ResupplyUSA
03/06/20Falcon 9Dragon (CRS-20)Cape CanaveralISS ResupplyUSA
04/09/20Soyuz-2Soyuz (ISS 62)BaikonurISS CrewRussia
04/25/20Soyuz-2Progress-75PBaikonurISS ResupplyRussia
05/21/20H-IIBHTV-9TanegashimaISS ResupplyJapan
05/30/20Falcon 9Crew Dragon (Demo-2)KennedyISS CrewUSA
07/23/20Soyuz-2Progress-76BaikonurISS ResupplyRussia
10/03/20AntaresCygnus NG-14Wallops IslandISS ResupplyUSA
10/14/20Soyuz-2Soyuz (ISS 63)BaikonurISS CrewRussia
11/15/20Falcon 9Crew Dragon (Crew-1)KennedyISS CrewUSA
12/06/20Falcon 9DragonKennedyISS ResupplyUSA

On Nov. 15, SpaceX launched the first Crew Dragon operational mission. NASA astronauts Mike Hopkins, Shannon Walker and Victor Glover were joined by Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi for a six-month stay on the station.

The Crew-1 mission raised the permanent number of astronauts on ISS from six to seven. The extra crew member doubled the amount of time devoted to science and experiments on the station.

SpaceX also launched two Dragon resupply ships to the station last year. The second mission in December featured the first upgraded freighter based on the larger Crew Dragon design. The new vehicle has 20 percent more internal space, and double the amount of powered locker cargo capacity. The upgraded spacecraft is designed to fly to ISS five times and can stay attached to the station for more than twice as long as the earlier cargo Dragon vehicles.

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

Russia, which had been carrying the entire crew load since 2011, launched two crews to the station aboard Soyuz transports. In May, the Soyuz MS-16 spacecraft carried Russian cosmonauts Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner and American astronaut Christopher Cassidy. In October, the Soyuz MS-17 spacecraft carried Russian cosmonauts Sergey Ryzhikov and Sergey Kud-Sverchkov and American astronaut Kathleen Rubins.

Russia launched two Progress resupply ships last year, a reduction from the three cargo vehicles it sent to the station in 2019. Northrop Grumman launched two Cygnus resupply ships to the station last year.

Japan launched its ninth and final HTV resupply ship to the station aboard the final H-IIB rocket in May. The cargo vehicle will be replaced by the upgraded HTV-X cargo vessel, which will be launched by the new H3 rocket.

LAUNCHES BY BOOSTER

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 led all boosters last year with 25 orbital launches and one suborbital flight. Russia’s redoubtable Soyuz-2 launcher flew 15 times with no failures. China’s Long March 2 boosters flew 10 times and the Long March 3 on nine occasions, with eight successes and one failure. Electron rounded out the top five with seven launches from New Zealand.

Launches by Booster, 2020

Launch VehicleNationSuccessesFailuresTotal
Falcon 9USA25025
Soyuz-2Russia15015
Long March 2C, 2D, 2FChina10010
Long March 3B, 3CChina819
ElectronUSA617
Long March 4B, 4CChina606
Atlas VUSA505
H-IIA, IIBJapan404
Ariane 5Europe303
Long March 5, 5BChina303
Long March 11, 11HChina303
Kuaizhou 1AChina213
AntaresUSA202
PSLVIndia202
VegaEurope112
Astra Rocket 3.1, 3.2USA022
Delta IV HeavyUSA101
Minotaur IVUSA101
Angara A5Russia101
ProtonRussia101
Ceres 1China101
Long March 6China101
Long March 8China101
QasedIran101
Shavit-2Israel101
LauncherOneUSA011
Kuaizhou 11China011
Long March 7AChina011
SimorghIran011
Total10410114

The top five launch vehicles flew 66 times, making up 57.9 percent of the 114 launch attempts. The boosters succeed 64 times and failed twice. At the lower end of the scale, 13 rockets flew only one time apiece, with nine successes and four failures.

New Boosters Debuted

Eight new launch vehicles conducted maiden flights last year. Successful launches included China’s Ceres-1, Long March 5B and Long March 8 rockets as well as Iran’s Qased booster.

On Nov. 7, Galactic Energy became the second nominally private Chinese company to launch a satellite into orbit. The company’s four-stage, 19-meter tall Ceres-1 booster successfully orbited the Tianqi-11 satellite for the Apocalypse Internet of Things (IoT) constellation.

Ceres-1 consists of three solid-fuel stages that use hydroxyl-terminated polybutadiene and a liquid fuel upper stage. The booster is capable of launching payloads weighing 350 kg (772 lb) into low Earth orbit and 230 kg (507 lb) into a 700 km (435 mile) high sun-synchronous orbit.

Galactic Energy officials have said the company will charge customers a flat feel of $4 million per launch.

The Long March 5B variant, which is designed to place heavy payloads in orbit, made its debut on May 5. The rocket carried an uncrewed prototype of China’s deep-space vehicle and the Flexible Inflatable Cargo Re-entry Vehicle. The crew vehicle landed under parachute after nearly three days in orbit; the cargo vehicle malfunctioned during reentry.

Long March 8 is capable of placing 4,500 kg (9,921 lb) into a 700 km (435 mile) sun-synchronous orbit. A future variant of Long March 8 will incorporate the ability to land the first stage and its two side boosters as a unit for reuse.

Iran’s Qased booster launched a reconnaissance satellite on April 22. The three-stage, small-satellite rocket is believed to be derived from the retired Safir launch vehicle family, with a liquid fuel first stage, a solid fuel second stage, and a liquid fuel third stage. Safir compiled a record of four successes, three failures and one unknown outcome between 2008 and 2019.

LAUNCH FAILURES

The unusually high number of launch failures — 10 — was partially a result of the maiden flights of eight new launch vehicles. Four of the eight new boosters combined for a total of five failures, with one failing to reach orbit on its second launch attempt as well.

Launch Failures, 2020

Launch VehiclePayload(s)NationMaiden Flight?Reason for Failure
Kuaizhou 1AJilin 1 commercial Earth-imaging satelliteChinaNoUndisclosed
Kuaizhou 11Jilin 1 commercial Earth-imaging satelliteChinaYesUndisclosed
Long March 3BIndonesian Palapa N1 communications satelliteChinaNoThird stage failure
Long March 7AXJY 6 (classified military)ChinaYesUndisclosed
Electron7 small satellitesUSANoSecond stage failure due to faulty electrical connection
LauncherOneNoneUSAYesFuel line broke after engine ignition
Rocket 3.1NoneUSAYesSafety system shut down first-stage engine after guidance malfunction
Rocket 3.2NoneUSANoRocket reached space but lacked sufficient thrust to reach orbit
VegaSEOSat-Ingenio Earth imaging satellite; Taranis science satelliteEuropeNoUpper stage failed due to improperly installed thrust vector control cables
SimorghZafar 1 Earth observation satelliteIranNoUndisclosed

China and the United States suffered eight of the 10 launch failures for 2020 with four mishaps apiece. Europe and Iran had one launch failure each.

China’s failures included two rockets making their maiden flights — Long March 7A and Kuaizhou 11 — as well as two boosters — Long March 3B and Kuaizhou 1A — that had flown successfully on previous ocassions. Payloads lost in the failures included Indonesia’s Palapa N1 communications satellite, China’s XJY 6 classified military satellite, and two commercial Jilin 1 commercial Earth-imaging satellite.

Seven small satellites were lost in the Electron failure. They included five Flock-4e Earth observation satellites owned by Planet, the CE-SAT-IB Earth observation spacecraft developed by Canon of Japan, and In-Space Missions’ Faraday-1 technology demonstration.

Astra’s Rocket 3.1 and 3.2 did not have any payloads on board when they failed to reach orbit. The same was true for Virgin Galactic’s LauncherOne, which failed on its maiden flight.

Spain’s first optical Earth imaging satellite, SEOSat-Ingenio, was lost in the accident. The other payload lost was CNES’ Tool for the Analysis of Radiation from lightning and Sprites (TARANIS) satellite, which was to have studied transient events in Earth’s atmosphere.

Iran lost the Zafar 1 Earth observation satellite when the Simorgh rocket failed.

LAUNCHES BY SPACEPORT

Florida’s Space Coast remained the busiest launch range in world with 30 successful flights and no failures. There were 20 launches conduct from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station and 10 from the adjoining Kennedy Space Center. SpaceX also conducted a suborbital flight of the Falcon 9 booster for a Crew Dragon in-flight abort test.

Kennedy saw two crewed flights for the first time since the retirement of the space shuttle in July 2011. SpaceX also conducted the first polar orbit from Florida since 1969.

Launch SiteLocationSuccessesFailuresTotal
Cape CanaveralUSA20020
XichangChina12113
JiuquanChina11213
KennedyUSA10010
BaikonurKazakhstan707
PlesetskRussia707
TaiyuanChina707
KourouFrench Guiana617
Mahia PeninsulaNew Zealand617
WenchangChina415
TanegashimaJapan404
Wallops IslandUSA303
Satish DhawanIndia202
Pacific Spaceport Complex — AlaskaUSA022
PalmachimIsrael101
ShahroudIran101
VandenbergUSA101
VostochnyRussia101
Yellow SeaChina101
SemnanIran011
Mojave*USA011
Total10410114
* First orbital launch attempt

China’s Xichang and Jiuquan spaceports combined for a total of 26 launch attempts split evenly between them. Twenty-three of the launches succeeded and three failed.

The Baikonur, Kourou, Mahia Peninsula, Plesetsk and Taiyuan spaceports hosted seven launches apiece, with 33 successes in 35 attempts. The two failures involved a Vega rocket from Kourou and an Electron booster from Mahia Peninsula in New Zealand.

China’s Wenchang Launch Center rounded out the top 10 with five successful launch attempts and no failures. Significant launches from the nation’s only coastal spaceport included the Chang’e-5 lunar sample return mission, the Tianwen-1 Martian orbit and rover, and a test of a new crew capsule.

The little used Pacific Spaceport Complex — Alaska saw two unsuccessful launches by Astra. The first orbit launch attempt originating from the Mojave Air and Space Port failed when a fuel line broke on Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne after the booster was dropped from its Boeing 747 Cosmic Girl carrier plane.

Coming tomorrow: The United States reclaims the top spot from China.