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.

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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.

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U.S. Space Force Successfully Launches First Tactically Responsive Launch Mission

WASHINGTON (AFNS) — The U. S. Space Force successfully launched the Tactically Responsive Launch-2 (TacRL-2) mission on a Northrop Grumman Pegasus XL rocket from Vandenberg Space Force Base on June 13 at 4:11 a.m. EDT, delivering a technology demonstration satellite to Low Earth Orbit.

Pegasus, the world’s first privately-developed commercial space launch vehicle, is an air-launched threestaged rocket carried aloft by Northrop Grumman’s specially modified “Stargazer” L-1011 aircraft. Shortly after its release from Stargazer, at approximately 40,000 feet above the Pacific Ocean, Pegasus ignited its first stage, beginning its successful flight carrying TacRL-2 to its intended orbit.

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Northrop Grumman Successfully Launches Pegasus XL Rocket for the US Space Force

Stargazer L-1011 with Pegasus XL rocket. (Credit: Northrop Grumman)

CHANDLER, Ariz., June 13, 2021 (Northrop Grumman PR) – Northrop Grumman Corporation (NYSE: NOC) successfully launched the Tactically Responsive Launch-2 (TacRL-2) payload into orbit for the U.S. Space Force (USSF), Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC), using the company’s Pegasus XL rocket. TacRL-2 was launched from Vandenberg Space Force Base.

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SpaceX Leases Property at Port of Long Beach

Long Beach Harbor property leased by SpaceX. (Credit; Google Maps)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

The Long Beach Harbor Commission has unanimously approved a two-year lease with SpaceX for Elon Musk’s company to use a marine terminal for the recovery of Falcon 9 first stages.

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United Launch Alliance Successfully Launches NROL-82 Mission to Support National Security

A ULA Delta IV Heavy rocket carrying the NROL-82 mission for the National Reconnaissance Office lifts off from Space Launch Complex-6 at 1:47 p.m. PDT on April 26, 2021. (Credit: United Launch Alliance)

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif., April 26, 2021 (ULA PR) – A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta IV Heavy launch vehicle carrying the NROL-82 mission for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) lifted off from Space Launch Complex-6 on April 26 at 1:47 p.m. PDT. To date ULA has launched 143 times with 100 percent mission success.

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Delta IV Heavy, Chinese Space Station Launches on Tap for This Week

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

The month of April is concluding with a string of launches from Russia, the United States, China and South America. Things kicked off on Friday with SpaceX’s launch of Crew-2 to the International Space Station (ISS). On Sunday, a Russian Soyuz rocket launched 36 OneWeb satellite broadband spacecraft from the Vostochny Cosmodrome in Russia’s Far East.

One of the final United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rockets is scheduled to launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base on Monday afternoon. That flight will be followed by the fifth launch of China’s Long March 6 booster. Launches by Europe’s Vega and SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets are scheduled over the next two days.

China will close out the month on Thursday by launching Tianhe-1 core module for that nation’s first permanent space station aboard a Long March 5B booster.

The full schedule for the week is below.

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SpaceX, ULA Win U.S. Air Force Launch Contracts

The U.S. Air Force has awarded contracts to SpaceX and United Launch Alliance (ULA) for two launches each under its National Security Space Launch Phase 2 agreements.

SpaceX will receive $159,721,445 to launch the USSF-36 and NROL-69 missions from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida and Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The launches are expected to be completed by the fourth quarter of fiscal year 2023.

ULA will receive $224,290,000 for launching the USSF-112 and USSF-87 missions from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The launches are expected to be completed by the fourth quarter of fiscal year 2023.

Last year, SpaceX and ULA won U.S. Air Force contracts to launch defense payloads for 2022-27.

NASA Awards Launch Services Contract to SpaceX for SPHEREx Astrophysics Mission

This animation shows the preliminary design for the spacecraft, including hexagonal sun shields that will help keep the instruments cool. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. (NASA PR) — NASA has selected Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) of Hawthorne, California, to provide launch services for the Spectro-Photometer for the History of the Universe, Epoch of Reionization, and Ices Explorer (SPHEREx) mission. SPHEREx is a planned two-year astrophysics mission to survey the sky in the near-infrared light, which, though not visible to the human eye, serves as a powerful tool for answering cosmic questions involving the birth of the universe, and the subsequent development of galaxies.

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Colorado Congressional Delegation Wants Biden to Suspend U.S. Space Command Move to Huntsville

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Colorado’s nine-member Congressional delegation has asked President Joe Biden to suspend the move of the U.S. Space Command from Colorado Springs to Huntsville, Ala., until the administration conducts a full review of a decision made during the waning days of the Trump Administration.

“This move undermines our ability to respond to the threats in space and is disruptive to the current mission. Additionally, significant evidence exists that the process was neither fair nor impartial and that President [Donald] Trump’s political considerations influenced the final decision,” the delegation said in a Jan. 26 letter to the president.

The U.S. Air Force announced the move of the U.S. Space Command from Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs to the Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville on Jan. 13, one week before Trump left office and a week after Congress certified the election of Democrat Joe Biden.

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The Good, the Bad and the Brexit: UK’s Participation in European Space Programs Curtailed by EU Departure

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Although the United Kingdom’s (UK) “Brexit” departure from the European Union (EU) on Jan. 1 will not affect its membership status in the European Space Agency (ESA), the nation’s participation in a number of European space programs is either ending or being curtailed.

On Christmas Eve, the UK and EU announced an agreement in principle that will govern trade, security and political relations after Brexit. Under the agreement, the UK’s participation in the:

  • Galileo satellite navigation and European Geostationary Navigation Overlay Service (EGNOS) program will end;
  • Copernicus Earth observation satellite program will continue, contingent upon a further agreement to be worked out next year; and
  • EU Space Surveillance and Tracking (EUSST) program will end, although the Britain will continue to receive data as a non-EU country.
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NASA, US, European Partner Satellite Returns First Sea Level Measurements

The data in this graphic are the first sea surface height measurements from the Sentinel-6 Michael Freilich (S6MF) satellite, which launched Nov. 21, 2020. They show the ocean off the southern tip of Africa, with red colors indicating higher sea level relative to blue areas, which are lower. (Credits: EUMETSAT)

WASHINGTON (NASA PR) — Sentinel-6 Michael Freilich, a joint U.S.-European satellite built to measure global sea surface height, has sent back its first measurements of sea level. The data provide information on sea surface height, wave height, and wind speed off the southern tip of Africa.

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Space Florida Reaches Milestone on Redevelopment of Space Launch Complex 20, Signs Lease with Firefly

EXPLORATION PARK, Fla. (Space Florida PR) — As Space Florida continues re-development of Space Launch Complex 20 (SLC-20) at the Cape Canaveral Spaceport as a multi-pad commercial launch site and home to Firefly Aerospace’s east coast launch operations, a significant milestone was reached in October with Space Florida’s completion of an Environmental Assessment encompassing modernization of facilities and high-cadence launch operations from the site.

Completion of this critical environmental review enables Firefly’s continued development and future operations at SLC-20, while ensuring that such activities pose no significant impact to the treasured natural assets of the spaceport.

Additionally, in October, Space Florida’s Board of Directors authorized Space Florida to enter long-term lease agreements for the site with the 45th Space Wing and Firefly, marking another important milestone in the ongoing transformation of the Cape Canaveral Spaceport into a hub for commercial space operations.

Space Florida would further like to congratulate Firefly on completion of acceptance testing and delivery of the first Alpha launch vehicle to Vandenberg AFB in preparation for the company’s initial launch.

We look forward to a successful mission as Firefly emerges as a leader in the small launch market, and continues preparation of both the SLC-20 launch site and the company’s new high-volume automated rocket factory in Space Florida’s Exploration Park at the Cape Canaveral Spaceport.

Of Rockets, Sand and Oceans: A Trip to Vandenberg

The top of a Falcon 9 rocket at Vandenberg Air Force Base. (Credit: Kenneth Brown)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Greetings from Lompoc.

Ken Brown and I drove over from Mojave today for the Falcon 9 launch of Sentinel-6 Michael Freilich satellite on Saturday morning. Launch is scheduled for 9:17 a.m. PST. As always, your local time may vary. You can catch all the action on NASA TV.

The European environmental satellite, which NASA and NOAA are supporting, will study the oceans. That’s something we saw a good bit of today.

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Sentinel-6 Michael Freilich Satellite Set to Launch on Saturday From Vandenberg

The Sentinel-6 Michael Freilich satellite undergoes final preparations in a clean room at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California for an early November launch. (Credits: ESA/Bill Simpson)

The newest satellite to monitor global sea level is ready for its journey into space. Here’s what to expect.

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. (NASA PR) — Sentinel-6 Michael Freilich, the latest in a series of spacecraft designed to monitor our oceans, is scheduled to launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base in central California on Saturday, Nov. 21, 2020. The satellite will be followed in 2025 by its twin, Sentinel-6B. Together, the pair is tasked with extending our nearly 30-year-long record of global sea surface height measurements. Instruments aboard the satellites will also provide atmospheric data that will improve weather forecasts, climate models, and hurricane tracking.

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