The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What 2020 could bring in spaceflight

NASA has big plans for the coming year. So do the space industry and foreign countries.

From left: Astronauts Josh Cassada, Suni Williams, Nicole Mann, Chris Ferguson and Mike Fincke at a news conference last month at the Kennedy Space Center. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

This year could herald significant moments in space exploration: NASA astronauts flying from United States soil for the first time since 2011; the first paying tourists traveling to the edge of space; rockets sending hundreds of satellites into Earth orbit to beam the Internet to remote parts of the globe; and the first serious steps toward returning a human being to the surface of the moon.

But as 2020 begins, the rosy promise of those developments could quickly be overruled by gravity and engineering issues. Already, NASA finds itself struggling with a technical problem — a software issue that marred the maiden flight of Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft just before Christmas and prevented it from reaching the International Space Station. It is a reminder of the many things that can go wrong when attempting to punch through the atmosphere.

This year is born full of hope and enthusiastic predictions of triumph, despite 2019’s catalogue of calamity, a one-step-forward-two-steps-back year, marked as much by failure as by success — by stuck valves, failed parachute systems and faulty onboard computers.

Yet hope remains for triumph. NASA will celebrate 20 continuous years of humans living in orbit aboard the International Space Station, and there are other records likely to be set.

The year in American spaceflight

SpaceX intends to break its record of 21 launches in a single year. The United Launch Alliance, the joint venture of Lockheed Martin and Boeing, plans to fly about a dozen times, including Boeing’s first mission with astronauts to the space station. Northrop Grumman has three launches planned.

Despite the recent problems that have plagued Boeing and SpaceX, which lost its spacecraft when it blew up last year during an engine test, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine remains confident that those companies will boost astronauts into space in 2020, ending an ignominious nine-year hiatus of human spaceflight from the United States that began when the space shuttle fleet was retired in 2011.

Other key moments in space set for 2020: as many as four missions to Mars by several countries, including China, and a key test of the monster rocket Boeing and others are building that NASA hopes will put astronauts on the moon by 2024.

Then again, space is costly, dangerous and exceedingly difficult — and what looked like a sure thing in January could be questionable by summer.

The space industry has had a nice run over the past several years, attracting millions of dollars of private investment, but now is headed to a turning point, said Carissa Christensen, the CEO of Bryce Space and Technology, a consulting firm.

“Now that’s moving to a phase of: prove it,” she said. “Companies are having to prove they’re viable and their business model flows, and some are succeeding and some are not.”

Human spaceflight

SpaceX started the year Monday night with a launch from Cape Canaveral to put 60 more satellites into low Earth orbit, part of a constellation that eventually could reach thousands that the company hopes would beam the Internet to remote parts of the globe without broadband.

Assembling that architecture in space will require dozens of launches, which many think could have the California-based company break its record for the most launches in a single year, 21 in 2018. SpaceX’s next launch is set to come as soon as Jan. 11, when it is scheduled to again test the emergency abort system of its Dragon spacecraft — this time in flight. A Falcon 9 rocket would blast off from launchpad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center. Then, shortly thereafter, the abort motors would fire, demonstrating that it has the ability to get crews away safely in the event of an emergency.

If it goes well, SpaceX is hoping to follow that with its first flight with people in the coming months.

Boeing is also moving aggressively, despite the problems that hampered the first test flight of its Starliner spacecraft. Officials said the spacecraft’s onboard timer was off by 11 hours and, as a result, the engines that would have propelled it on a trajectory to the space station never fired.

The company, which fired chief executive Dennis Muilenburg in the wake of the 737 Max airplane crisis, is still investigating what caused the problem. But company officials said that they were preparing the spacecraft for its next mission and that its life-support system had performed well. The spacecraft “shows little scorching from the heat of atmospheric re-entry,” the company said.

When it comes to human spaceflight, no one has made more overly optimistic pronouncements than Richard Branson, the founder of Virgin Galactic. For years, the British-born billionaire has predicted that his company would soon ferry legions of paying tourists to the edge of space and back — only to have to delay again and again.

But now, having reached what many consider the edge of space twice — once at the end of 2018, and then again early last year — the company says it is poised to finally begin flying the hundreds of people who have put down as much as $250,000 for a ticket.

The company, which recently went public after merging with a New York investment firm, projects flying 66 customers this year, more than 700 in 2021 and nearly 1,000 the following year, according to a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Blue Origin, the space venture founded by Jeff Bezos, has also said it intends to fly humans for the first time in 2020. But unlike Branson, Bezos, who owns The Washington Post, has been relatively quiet about his space tourism plans. The company has announced no price for the missions in its reusable New Shepard vehicle, which would offer a few minutes of weightlessness.

In December, it launched its latest test without astronauts, a mission it said helped it move “closer toward verifying New Shepard for human flight.”

Small satellites

Virgin Orbit, another Branson venture, also could reach a significant milestone this year when it plans to launch its rocket, LauncherOne, for the first time. Instead of taking off vertically, the craft would be dropped from the wing of a 747 jet before its engines would fire to carry it into space.

The company’s plan is to join in the competition to send small satellites into space inexpensively and quickly. A leader in that market has already emerged — Rocket Lab, a New Zealand company that also operates out of California. It’s already launched 10 times, with six missions last year. It plans to launch a dozen times this year, including the maiden flight from the launchpad it is taking over at NASA’s facility on Wallops Island on the Eastern Shore of Virginia.

Rocket companies hope that a number of small satellite constellations, designed to beam the Internet to remote corners of the world, could fuel a demand for increased launches. SpaceX has already put up about 120 satellites as part of its Starlink program, and Monday’s launch will add 60 more. It hopes to achieve moderate coverage by this year, which would require several more launches.

Other companies such as OneWeb and Amazon also are planning to put up hundreds of satellites of their own, which many fear could create a traffic jam in space. Last year, the European Space Agency complained that it had to move one of its satellites to avoid a collision. Astronomers have also said the increased number of satellites could clutter space and interfere with their views of the cosmos.

Moon and Mars

In addition to flying its astronauts from the Florida Space Coast, NASA’s biggest priority for 2020 is to continue to work toward meeting the White House’s mandate to return humans to the moon by 2024.

The next big step is to award the contract to build a lander capable of taking astronauts to the lunar surface. Boeing is vying for the contract, as is a team led by Blue Origin that also includes Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Draper.

It’s not clear, however, whether the money will be there to meet the 2024 deadline. Congress has been reluctant to pay for a moon mission without seeing a specific breakdown of the total cost, and there are many other pressing needs in the budget in an election year. And the Space Launch System rocket that prime contractor Boeing is building for the NASA missions has never flown.

Still, NASA remains optimistic.

The SLS rocket is about to undergo a series of tests to fire its engines and stress the avionics systems to ensure the rocket will be ready for its first launch in 2021.

“I refuse to go ahead and use funding as a crutch for not making it to the moon by 2024,” Doug Loverro, NASA’s new associate administrator for human exploration and operations, told SpaceNews recently.

India will try again to reach the lunar surface after its spacecraft, carrying no astronauts, crashed into the lunar surface last year. But it’s unclear when the upcoming Chandrayaan-3 mission would launch.

NASA is planning to launch a rover carrying a small helicopter to Mars this summer. In December, the Mars 2020 rover passed a key milestone, completing its first driving test, which “unambiguously proved that the rover can operate under its own weight and demonstrated many of the autonomous-navigation functions for the first time,” Rich Rieber, the lead mobility systems engineer for the mission, said in a statement.

Other nations are eyeing the Red Planet as well. Russia and the European Space Agency are planning to send a rover and a lander there this year in a joint mission. So is China, which plans to send a spacecraft that would orbit Mars. The country, which last year landed on the far side of the moon, a historic first, plans as many as 40 launches in 2020 and saw the return to flight of its massive Long March 5 rocket late last year after a failure in 2017.

And the United Arab Emirates is also planning to fly an uncrewed spacecraft to orbit Mars that would be launched by Japan later this year.