Launch 2020: U.S. Reclaimed Top Spot, Flew Astronauts Again from American Soil

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)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

The United States reclaimed the top spot in launches from China last year as NASA astronauts flew into orbit from American soil for the first time in nearly nine years, SpaceX deployed the world’s first satellite mega-constellation with reused rockets, and two new launchers debuted with less than stellar results.

American companies conducted 44 launches in 2020, with 40 successes and four failures. Bryce Tech reports that U.S. companies accounted for 32 of the 41 commercial launches conducted last year. The majority of those flights were conducted by SpaceX, which launched 25 orbital missions.

China came in second with a record of 35 successful launches and four failures. The 39 launch attempts tied that nation’s previous record for flights during a calendar year.

Let’s take a closer look at what U.S. companies achieved last year.


Russia Advocates for a Resolution to Prevent Arms Race in Outer Space

MOSCOW (Roscosmos PR) — Russian Federation advocates a resolution to prevent arms race in outer space.

‘We consistently speak on all the possible and available negotiation sites such as the Conference on Disarmament for adopting the resolution to prevent arms race in outer space. With extreme cautiousness we perceive claims that Russia plans to place arms in space aiming at the USA,’ says Roscosmos Deputy Director General Sergey Saveliev.

Russia is ready to develop comprehensive partnership between Moscow and Washington concerning a widest range of questions in space exploration, but not just supplying RD-180/181 rocket engines to the American companies and delivering US astronauts to the International Space Station, Sergey Saveliev added.

‘Naturally, in these cases we rely on the principles of mutuality and equality. Militarization of space with our American partners eventually taking the leading roles might disturb already fragile relations between the two countries in the sphere,’ Saveliev noted.

The Defense Space Strategy defines the way the US Department of Defense will promote space potential to ensure the capability of the Pentagon to compete, deter, and win in a complex security environment characterized by ‘great power competition’. This strategy views space as a special military potential area, which among others is the base for joint and coordinated full spectrum operations to strengthen national security.

This strategy implies the most serious reform in the history of the national safety program in space with a phased approach to the following areas: build a comprehensive military advantage in space; integrate space into national, joint, and combined operations; shape the strategic environment; and cooperate with allies, partners, industry, and other US Government departments and agencies. The document also contains accusations that Russia and China have militarized space.

Roscosmos Official: U.S.-Russian Space Cooperation Deteriorating

Roscosmos boss Dmitry Rogozin meets with Russia’s boss of bosses, President Vladimir Putin. (Credit: Russian President’s Office)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Although Russian President Vladimir Putin is apparently U.S. President Donald Trump’s favorite autocratic ruler, cooperation between the two nations on future space projects are breaking down, a high-ranking Roscosmos official said.


NASA Will Not Release Public Report on SpaceX Falcon 9 Dragon Failure

Dragon capsule separated from Falcon 9 launch vehicle.

NASA will not publicly release the results of its own investigation into the catastrophic failure of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket that launched a Dragon resupply ship into the Atlantic Ocean in June 2015.

After saying it would release a summary of the agency’s investigation, NASA passed the buck to the FAA on an accident that destroyed $118 million worth of cargo the space agency was sending to the International Space Station (ISS).

“Since it was an FAA licensed flight, NASA is not required to complete a formal final report or public summary, and has deferred any additional products related to the matter at this time,” the agency’s Public Affairs Office (PAO) said in an email.


Russian Rocket Engines Exempted from Sanctions Bill

RD-180 test firing. (Credit: NASA)

Officials at Orbital ATK and ULA breathed sighs of relief on Thursday as the U.S. Senate voted overwhelmingly to exempt rocket engines from a sanctions bill targeting Iran and Russia.

The amendment to the sanctions measure exempted RD-180 engines used by ULA in the first stage of its Atlas V booster and the RD-181 engines Orbital ATK uses in the first stage of its Antares launch vehicle. Both engines are produced by NPO Energomash of Russia.


A Look at Payloads Launched in 2016

Built by Lockheed Martin, the WorldView-4 satellite will expand DigitalGlobe’s industry-leading constellation of high-accuracy, high-resolution satellites, and double the availability of 30 cm resolution imagery for commercial and government customers around the globe. (Credit: Lockheed Martin)

Excerpt from

The Annual Compendium of
Commercial Space Transportation: 2017

Federal Aviation Administration
Office of Commercial Space Transportation (FAA AST)

January 2017

State of the Payload Industry

Space industry companies and organizations worldwide, sometimes the same as launch vehicle manufacturers but also those specifically dedicated to spacecraft manufacturing, produce these spacecraft. Commercially launched payloads are typically used for the following mission types:

  • Commercial communications satellites;
  • Commercial remote sensing or Earth observation satellites;
  • Commercial crew and cargo missions, including on-orbit vehicles and platforms;
  • Technology test and demonstration missions, usually new types of payloads undergoing test or used to test new launch vehicle technology; and
  • Other commercially launched payloads, usually satellites launched for various purposes by governments of countries not having indigenous orbital launch capability.


It’s Showtime for Revamped Antares Booster

Antares vertical on the launch pad on Wallops Island. (Credit: Orbital ATK)
Antares vertical on the launch pad on Wallops Island. (Credit: Orbital ATK)

The Antares booster set to lift off on Sunday evening is a re-engineered version of a launch vehicle that exploded spectacularly after launch nearly two years ago.

The key change is the replacement of two Aerojet Rocketdyne AJ-26 engines in the first stage with RD-181 engines produced by NPO Energomash of Russia. The new engines are powered by liquid oxygen (LOX) and kerosene.


Orbital ATK Delays Antares Return to Flight to August

Antares rolled out for hot fire in May 2016. (Credit: Orbital ATK)
Antares rolled out for hot fire in May 2016. (Credit: Orbital ATK)

The return to flight of Orbital ATK’s Antares booster will be delayed from July 6 to sometime in August.

An Orbital ATK spokesperson said engineers are analyzing data from last month’s 30-second hotfire test on the Antares launch pad at Wallops Island, Virginia. In conjunction with the data crunching, the company’s engineers are also adjusting the trajectory the two-stage rocket will fly after blastoff from its seaside launch complex.

“Our Antares team recently completed a successful stage test and is wrapping up the test data analysis,” the company said in a statement. “Final trajectory shaping work is also currently underway, which is likely to result in an updated launch schedule in the August timeframe.”

The 139-foot-tall (42.5-meter) rocket, propelled by two RD-181 engines on its first stage and a solid-fueled Castor 30XL upper stage, will deliver Orbital ATK’s Cygnus cargo craft to orbit. The automated supply freighter, named the SS Alan Poindexter after the late space shuttle astronaut, will carry approximately 5,290 pounds (2,400 kilograms) of provisions, experiments and other cargo to the International Space Station.

Read the full story.


Orbital ATK Conducts Successful Antares Test Firing

DULLES, Va., 31 May 2016 (Orbital ATK PR) -– Orbital ATK (NYSE: OA), a global leader in aerospace and defense technologies, today announced it conducted a full-power “hot fire” test of the upgraded first stage propulsion system of its Antares medium-class rocket using new RD-181 main engines.

The 30-second test took place at 5:30 p.m. (EDT) on May 31, 2016 at Virginia Space’s Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) Pad 0A. Initial indications are that the test was fully successful.


Orbital Eyes Next Antares Flight in July

Two RD-181 integrated with the Antares first stage air frame at the Wallops Island, Virginia Horizontal Integration Facility (HIF). A “hot fire” test on Pad 0A is scheduled for late 2015 or early 2016. (Credit: NASA/ Terry Zaperach)
Two RD-181 integrated with the Antares first stage air frame at the Wallops Island, Virginia Horizontal Integration Facility (HIF). A “hot fire” test on Pad 0A is scheduled for late 2015 or early 2016. (Credit: NASA/ Terry Zaperach)

Orbital ATK reported today that it is making good progress on its upgraded Antares rocket, which has been grounded since a catastrophic launch accident in October 2014.


Orbital ATK Receives New Antares Engines; Launch Accident Report Nears Completion

A massive explosion occurred right after the Antares rocket hit the ground.
A massive explosion occurred right after the Antares rocket hit the ground.

Orbital ATK has received the first two Russian-built RD-181 rocket engines for use in the company’s revamped Antares launch vehicle, the TASS news agency reports.

RSC Energia said the engines arrived in the United States on July 16 after being shipped from Russia the previous day. Energia is the managing organization for the engine’s manufacturer, NPO Energomash.


Orbital, Aerojet Rocketdyne Disagree on Cause of Antares Explosion

A massive explosion occurred right after the Antares rocket hit the ground.
A massive explosion occurred right after the Antares rocket hit the ground.

After the explosion of an Antares rocket in October, NASA left the investigation in the hands of the company’s that bands of the company that built and launched the rocket, Orbital Sciences Corporation (now Orbital ATK). Yesterday, we got the first official word on what that investigation has found. And it’s very confusing.

Orbital ATK Executive Vice President Ronald Grabe said during the 31st Space Symposium that the failure was caused by excessive wear in the bearings of a turbo pump for one of the two first-stage AJ-26 engines supplied by Aerojet Rocketdyne.


Space Symposium Launch Vehicle Panel

The 31st Space Symposium is taking place all week in Colorado Springs. It’s already generated some news, with ULA unveiling its new launch vehicle [here and here], Paul Allen demanding the company change the rocket’s name, and Rocket Lab showing off its electric motor.

I wasn’t able to attend this year, but I’ve been monitoring the events via Twitter.  Today’s most interesting session appears to have been a launch vehicle panel that included Aerojet Rocketdyne, Arianespace, Blue Origin, Orbital ATK, SpaceX and ULA.


Orbital Says It Won’t Conduct Demo Flight of Upgraded Antares Rocket

A massive explosion occurred right after the Antares rocket hit the ground.
A massive explosion occurred right after the Antares rocket hit the ground.

Orbital ATK will  launch an upgraded version of its Antares launch vehicle next March with a full load of supplies for the International Space Station (ISS) next March without first conducting a qualification flight to test out the booster’s new first stage engines, officials announced this week.


RSC Energia Seals Deal With Orbital Sciences for Engine Delivery

Energia_logoMOSCOW (RSC Energia PR) –– The President of RSC Energia (which is a part of the United Rocket and Space Corporation) Vladimir Solntsev and General Director of Orbital Sciences Corporation (OSC) David Thompson  have signed a direct contract for the delivery to the US of engines made by NPO Energomash (a subsidiary of RSC Energia).

The contract value is approximately US$1 billion (the exact figure is a commercial secret). Altogether, Russia is to deliver to the US 60 RD-181 engines – the customer is going to receive the first two engines as early as June 2015. The contract was concluded directly with the Orbital Sciences Corporation.