Rocket Rundown: A Review of Spaceflight in 2019, Rocket Rundown

Rocket Rundown: A Review of Spaceflight in 2019

Over the 12 months of 2019, a total of 102 orbital missions were launched from facilities around the world. Although that figure represents a more than 10% decline from the 114 missions launched in 2018, it was still more than was launched any year over the past three decades prior to last year.

Orbital launches by country

China completed the largest share of orbital missions in 2019 with a total of 34 launches. Significant achievements for the country over the 12-month period included launching the Chang’e 4 lunar lander, which became the first lander to touch down safely on the far side of the Moon, and the completition of the core constellation of the BeiDou-3 navigation system. Although the country suffered twice the number of launch failures last year, one of the two failures occurred aboard a test vehicle from the commercial launch provider OneSpace.

The United States launched seven less orbital missions last year than in 2018. Despite this, the country made significant headway into the development of its first crewed capabilities since the retirement of the Space Shuttle. Both SpaceX and Boeing launched orbital test missions of their respective crew-capable spacecraft. Although both suffered setbacks, the completition of these tests opens the door for the maiden crewed missions to be launched in 2020. In addition to the country’s progress towards its commercial crew capabilities, the Unites States also marked a second straight year without a single launch failure.

Russia increased its launch cadence by 25% with five additional orbital launches in 2019. The country also managed to shake off the Soyuz MS-10 mishap of 2018 to complete the year without a single failure.

India, Japan, and Europe all recorded underwhelming years as competition in the launch market continues to heat up.

Finally, Iran was the biggest loser of 2019 with two launch attempts and not a single successful flight.

Data referenced was collected from Wikipedia’s 2019 in spaceflight page.

Orbital launches by rocket

After two years of dominance, the SpaceX Falcon 9 finally slipped from the top spot with China’s Long March 3 launched more than any other rocket in 2019. The three-stage rocket was launched on 12 missions over the 12-month period. Additionally, a total of 25 missions were launched aboard Long March rockets with seven aboard the Long March 4, three aboard the Long March 11, two aboard the Long March 2 and a single mission launched aboard the heavy-lift Long March 5.

One of the most improved performances came from the small launch provider Rocket Lab. The provider launched a total of six orbital missions aboard its Electron rocket in 2019, which represents a 100% increase from the previous year. The company plans to continue to increase its launch cadence and hopes to launch at least one orbital mission a month in 2020.

Data referenced was collected from Wikipedia’s 2019 in spaceflight page.

Orbital launches by spaceport

A total of eight countries hosted orbital launch attempts in 2019. Baikonur, Cape Canaveral, and Xichang tied for the most missions launched from a single location each hosting 13 without suffering a single failure. Semnan in Iran holds the ignominious title of the least successful launch facility of 2019 with two launch attempts and not a single success. The three additional launch failures recorded last year occurred at Jiuquanm, Kourou, and Taiyuan.

Data referenced was collected from Wikipedia’s 2019 in spaceflight page.

All launch data referenced above was collected from Wikipedia’s 2019 in spaceflight page.

Spaceflight notes expanding and evolving offerings as it prepares for first GTO rideshare mission

Spaceflight notes expanding and evolving offerings as it prepares for first GTO rideshare mission

Hot on the heels of its first dedicated mission via the Falcon 9 launch of the SSO-A mission late last year, Spaceflight is preparing for its first rideshare mission to Geostationary Transfer Orbit (GTO). The Falcon 9 launch of primary payload Nusantara Satu (PSN VI) – now set to launch from SLC-40 No Earlier Than (NET) Feb 21 – will include two passengers using Spaceflight’s rideshare option, which the company notes are part of its evolving offerings.

The upcoming launch of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket loft the Indonesian communications satellite, named Nusantara Satu (PSN VI), en route to its operational destination at 146 degrees East longitude. There it will provide service throughout South East Asia and includes a High Throughput Satellite (HTS) payload for service in Indonesia.

Along for the ride will be two secondary passengers, under the stewardship of Spaceflight – rideshare and mission management provider.

It follows a dedicated launch on a Falcon 9 when the SSO-A mission launched 64 unique smallsats from 34 organizations from 17 countries in December 2018 from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

SSO-A mission launches on a Falcon 9 from Vandenberg – photo by Sam Sun for NSF/L2

The two Spaceflight rideshare passengers on the upcoming mission are destined for two different orbits.

One payload has been known for some time, with SpaceIL’s four-legged lunar spacecraft, which was competing in the Google Lunar XPrize, set to be the smallest spacecraft to land on the Moon.

Named Beresheet Hebrew for “in the beginning”), it will represent Israel’s first spacecraft and the world’s first privately funded spacecraft to reach the Moon.

The lander heads to the surface of the Moon – via SpaceIL

It will take a while to get to its lunar destination, first orbiting Earth, before gradually increasing its apogee until it can maneuver to be captured by the Moon’s gravity. It will travel to the Moon’s surface under its own power, a voyage taking nearly two months.

Its mission is to transmit photos and video of its new home and conduct scientific measurements. Upon the mission’s completion, it will remain as a lunar time capsule commemorating this historic accomplishment.

Information into the second spacecraft was released on Monday, with Spaceflight noting it will also launch the U.S. Air Force Research Lab’s (AFRL) experimental small satellite, S5.

See Also

The AFRL spacecraft, built by Blue Canyon Technologies, will remain attached to the Nusantara Satu satellite as they continue their journey to Geostationary Orbit (GEO). Before the telecommunications satellite reaches its final GEO position, it will separate the S5 spacecraft which will then power on and start its mission.

“This is an important mission for Spaceflight as we expand and evolve our customer offerings,” said Curt Blake, CEO of Spaceflight. “The launches we pursue continue to get more sophisticated and demonstrate that our expertise goes beyond identifying and scheduling launches.

“We also offer valuable integration and deployment services that enable our customers to reach space in a cost-effective manner and get to their desired orbit successfully. With this mission, Spaceflight is demonstrating that the Moon is in reach.”

The launch date has moved slightly from its original target to February 21 (20:45 Eastern) – per the latest update on the Eastern Range.

The SpaceX Falcon 9 launch of Nusantara Satu (PSN VI)/GTO-1/SpaceIL from SLC-40 is expected to move to a NET of Feb 21 at 20:45 Eastern.

However, Spaceflight is only classing the launch date as No Earlier Than mid-February at this time, per its latest release on Monday.

This mission marks Spaceflight’s inaugural launch of 2019 – and to date, the company has negotiated the launch of more than 200 satellites and has plans for approximately 10 missions in 2019 launching nearly 100 payloads.

This was the decade the commercial spaceflight industry leapt forward – The Verge

This was the decade the commercial spaceflight industry leapt forward

Led by SpaceX, there’s been a paradigm shift in the business of space

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Two years into the decade, on May 25th, 2012, a small teardrop-shaped capsule arrived at the International Space Station, packed with cargo and supplies for the crew living on board. Its resupply mission at the ISS wasn’t remarkable, but the vehicle itself was unique: it was a Dragon cargo capsule, owned and operated by a private company called SpaceX.

Before 2012, only vehicles operated by governments had ever visited the ISS. The Dragon was the first commercial vehicle to dock with the station. The milestone was a crowning achievement for the commercial industry, which has permanently altered the spaceflight sector over the last 10 years.

This decade, the space industry has seen a shift in the way it does business, with newer players looking to capitalize on different markets and more ambitious projects. The result has been an explosion of growth within the commercial sector. It’s allowing for easier access to space than ever before, with both positive and negative results. Such growth is providing the commercial space industry with lots of momentum coming into the 2020s, but it’s unclear if this pace is something that can be kept up.

A new paradigm

Commercial companies have been involved in spaceflight since the dawn of space travel. Private companies built the Saturn V rocket for NASA, which took the first humans to the surface of the Moon. But for much of the 20th century, the companies that built those rockets and spacecraft weren’t purely focused on space travel. Instead, behemoth contractors specialized in space technologies, while also focusing on other areas of tech such as aviation and defense. They pursued purely government contracts — either from NASA or the Department of Defense — and most often the government told them exactly what to do.

“Under the old model, the government would hire a Lockheed or a Boeing or somebody to build one of these rockets,” Brian Weeden, director of program planning for the Secure World Foundation, tells The Verge. “Almost all the money would come from the government, and the government would have almost complete control over what was built.” It’s the way the Space Shuttle was built; the way the International Space Station was built; the way the future James Webb Space Telescope is being built. All of these things are owned and operated by NASA, though they’ve all been built by contractors.

NASA’s Space Shuttle, built by contractors, flew its final flight in 2011 Image: NASA

For years, companies with the most spaceflight experience pursued these juicy government gigs, forsaking the private market. The US’s biggest launch provider since 2006, the United Launch Alliance, was mostly established to loft national security satellites for the DoD. “Because our companies became only interested in and focusing on the government customer, by 2010, at the beginning of the decade, we had no market share at all in the commercial space launch industry,” Greg Autry, an assistant professor at the University of Southern California specializing in new space, tells The Verge. “If a private company from Thailand wanted to launch a TV satellite or an Israeli company wanted to launch a communications satellite, an American launch vehicle was not even a consideration.”

But in the 2000s, a new player emerged in the commercial space arena. Space Exploration Technologies Corp., helmed by billionaire Elon Musk, took a different route than the contractors. The company was purely focused on space travel, with a very ambitious long-term goal: start a settlement on Mars someday. First, it had to build actual rockets, and the company had to be profitable doing so. Armed with private investment from Musk and early adopters, SpaceX started developing rockets on its own. And rather than focus entirely on government contracts, SpaceX pursued any customer it could, from NASA and the DoD, to commercial and international satellite operators. If you had something that needed to get to space, SpaceX wanted to fly it for you.

As SpaceX strived to make a name for itself, NASA started to experiment with a new way of doing business. Known as fixed-price contracting, the idea worked liked this: The space agency would put out a call for a service (for instance, a way to transport cargo to the ISS). Companies would then pitch their own ideas and vehicles to make that happen. If NASA liked the pitch, it would hand over a lump sum of money as investment, and the company would go into development. Once the vehicle was complete, NASA would pay for the use of it. It was meant to be a win-win. NASA would pay less money up front for a service, and private companies would own and operate their final creations.

This model was perfect for a company like SpaceX. It could use the investment from the government to supplement the development of its rockets, and then ultimately use the rockets to make money once development was complete. “That caused them to think creatively,” Lori Garver, the former deputy administrator of NASA under the Obama administration, tells The Verge. “There was a guaranteed market if you could get there.” That’s exactly what happened after SpaceX was tasked by NASA to start servicing the International Space Station. Once the company had developed its Falcon 9 rocket, SpaceX tried to put as many satellites on top of the vehicle as possible.

SpaceX’s Dragon, captured by the robotic arm on the International Space Station, in May 2012 Image: NASA

To capture more customers, SpaceX strove to bring down launch costs through new methods of manufacturing and a vertically integrated business. Famously, SpaceX relentlessly pursued making its rockets reusable, by landing them after each flight — a feat that’s meant to save the company on manufacturing costs. SpaceX has reaped the benefits of its affordable launches, too. Despite a few notable rocket failures, the company is still the most prolific launch provider in the US at the moment, and holds contracts with numerous customers from around the world. “They want to pursue private markets,” Jim Muncy, founder of PoliSpace, a space policy consulting agency, tells The Verge. “And they want to stimulate private markets.”

For better or for worse

Capitalism finally infiltrated spaceflight in the 2010s, and that meant competition was in full swing. Other launch providers looked at ways to also bring down costs over the last decade, with some pursuing reusability as well. New players are coming onto the scene: Blue Origin, Virgin Orbit, Rocket Lab, and more. As launch costs have come down, space has become more accessible than ever.

Over the last decade, Moore’s law has also finally taken hold of spaceflight, with satellites and vehicles being built smaller. These cereal box-sized satellites are easier and cheaper to make than their bus-sized predecessors, and they’re much cheaper to launch, requiring less overall room on a rocket. As a result, companies focused solely on building small satellites have seen enormous success. Research organizations and universities looking to put something into orbit have an easier time of making that happen. This trend, combined with more launch vehicles, has resulted in an explosion of new vehicles and satellite constellations from commercial companies.

With all this progress does come unintended consequences. The rise of SpaceX has also seen the rise of the SpaceX fans. Unlike other CEOs, Musk’s fans revere him as an almost godlike figure, a savior for humanity who will lead us to a utopia on Mars. Criticizing him and SpaceX for any reason comes with major risk, as you will likely be perceived as tearing down progress. That’s unfortunate, because healthy skepticism is warranted these days, as SpaceX’s claims and ambitions have grown loftier than ever. The latest claim is that the company will be landing a giant new vehicle on the Moon by 2022 — but that vehicle hasn’t yet been built, and it certainly hasn’t flown. “Every pronouncement that they make, no matter how wacky it is, is reported without critique, largely,” Linda Billings, a current consultant to NASA’s astrobiology and planetary defense programs, tells The Verge.

Some of the more formidable projects these companies want to undertake could also be detrimental down the road. Notably, SpaceX, OneWeb, and other companies have all been eyeing a new spaceflight market: filling low Earth orbit with tens of thousands of satellites, in order to beam internet coverage to the surface below. In an effort to bolster the progress of the commercial space industry, the government has taken a light touch approach to regulating these more entrepreneurial companies. The Federal Communications Commission, which provides licenses for launches, has been very lax in its approvals, giving SpaceX and OneWeb the go-ahead for their massive satellite initiatives. Now, there’s not much stopping them from increasing the amount of satellites in orbit by several orders of magnitude.

SpaceX’s first batch of Starlink satellites, just before being deployed Image: SpaceX

It’s unclear what that will do to the space around Earth. Already, there’s concern that so many satellites will transform the night sky, making it difficult for astronomers to make detailed observations of the Universe when so many vehicles are whizzing overhead. But even more concerning is how all these satellites will add to an already congested region of space. Injecting thousands of satellites into orbit over the next few years may drastically increase the chances of things colliding. The end result could be that low Earth orbit becomes too crowded, and essentially unusable.

While this decade saw ambitions grow along with enormous progress within the commercial space sector, many things that had been promised didn’t pan out. Most notably, human spaceflight on commercial vehicles has yet to fully mature. Space tourism ventures Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic argued that customers could be flying this decade. That dream will have to wait until the 2020s. “Branson was saying we were going to start flying tourists in 2008,” says Billings. “And where are we now?” Meanwhile, SpaceX and Boeing have been developing new vehicles to carry humans to the International Space Station, under the new contracting model that NASA used to resupply the ISS. While the process may be less expensive than other contracting methods, the development has still been fraught with delays and setbacks — whether that be from stringent oversight, low budgets, or just plain engineering problems. The first crews were supposed to fly in 2017. Now they will likely fly for the first time in 2020. Creating new passenger spacecraft that keep people alive and safe still takes a lot of time, no matter what contracting method you use.

What’s next?

As the 2020s get underway, the commercial space industry will have a lot to prove, especially since many have their sights set much higher than low Earth orbit. Numerous private companies are aiming to send robotic landers to the Moon in the next few years, while SpaceX, Blue Origin, and more all vow to send people to the Moon someday. It’s unclear how long it will take them to get there, if they can make it at all. The first private company, an Israeli nonprofit, attempted to land on the Moon this year and didn’t stick the landing.

Ultimately, it’s uncertain if there is a solid market for more ambitious forms of space travel. Even the satellite market has softened in recent years, which may explain why SpaceX has tried to turn itself into a consumer-facing business through its satellite constellation. It needs money to stay afloat. The scary thought is: what if there’s not much more money to squeeze out of space? Experts have long been forecasting days where private space stations will dominate low Earth orbit, frequented by tourists on vacation or their honeymoons. Eventually, private companies hope to scour the Moon’s surface for water ice, which they could turn into drinking water or rocket fuel for lunar bases. It all sounds like a great future. “Commercializing the lunar stuff, honestly, is not going to happen as fast, because there isn’t a market for it anytime soon,” says Garver. “But anyone could have told you there was a market for launch outside of NASA.”

The next decade will show us if the commercial spaceflight industry can match the progress it’s seen these last 10 years. Maybe these companies will finally take us beyond Earth orbit, with people along for the ride. Or it may reveal that the market for space is staying close to home for the foreseeable future.

Boeing – s Mission for NASA Gets Cut Short – The Atlantic

A Dramatic Error in American Spaceflight

Boeing was set to pass a meaningful milestone in spaceflight, but a glitch cut the mission short.

A long-exposure view of the Atlas V rocket, with the Boeing Starliner capsule on top, launching into space this morning Terry Renna / AP

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla.—It was a picture-perfect launch, just before sunrise on a sandy coastline. The rocket, bright as a candle flame, climbed steadily, leaving a spindly trail of smoke that split the sky in half, with the sharp darkness of night on one side and the first pastel hues of daylight on the other. It carried a capsule, bound for the International Space Station, to the edge of space and let go.

The trouble started after that. The capsule, built for NASA by Boeing, was supposed to ignite its own engines to boost itself higher into orbit, where it would chase after the space station. But the engines didn’t start when they should have. Engineers watched, unable to help from below, as the spacecraft became disoriented.

Before the launch, NASA was optimistic. SpaceX had carried out a similar mission earlier in the year, and that effort was a success from start to finish. But Boeing’s attempt to reach the ISS has failed.

There were no people on board the spaceship, just a mannequin and thousands of pounds of supplies for the crew on the ISS. But this capsule was specifically designed to carry people, and this mission was supposed to test how the craft handled the rigors of spaceflight. If the mission had been successful, the next flight would have carried three astronauts. The astronauts for that inaugural flight already have their assignments and have spent months in training, and they watched this morning’s launch from control centers here. As the rocket took off, “we kind of imagined ourselves as if we were on board,” Michael Fincke, a future Starliner crew member, told reporters at a press conference after the launch.

The capsule, named CST-100 Starliner, is part of a NASA program called Commercial Crew, an effort to launch astronauts to the ISS from the U.S. The agency has not had that capability since the space-shuttle program ended in 2011 under the weight of cost, safety, and political factors. Instead of starting another in-house effort, NASA has hired two companies, Boeing and SpaceX, to design, build, and launch new systems, under the agency’s supervision. In the interim, the agency has paid the Russian agency Roscosmos to ferry astronauts to the ISS on the country’s Soyuz rocket and capsule, together with cosmonauts, from a desert in Kazakhstan.

According to NASA officials, after Starliner separated from the rocket, the capsule missed the moment it needed to ignite its engines for a carefully timed and fully automated process known as an orbital insertion burn. Without that step, the spacecraft couldn’t fire the thrusters to shove itself into the correct orbit. The problem was, of all things, its clock. The system that tracks how much time has passed since launch—and that guides when maneuvers happen—experienced an error. The glitch confused Starliner, making the capsule lose track of time. When engineers realized what was going on, they scrambled to send new commands to the capsule.

But the craft was flying just out of reach of communication, between two satellites. When engineers could finally contact Starliner, they made the spacecraft thrust itself higher, but it was too late. The confused capsule had been burning fuel to maintain its position, and didn’t have enough left to execute that crucial push toward the ISS.

Starliner had no choice now but to return to Earth. The capsule was supposed to circle the planet for about a day until it reached the ISS. It was to dock autonomously with the station and remain there for a week before detaching, streaking through the atmosphere, and parachuting down in New Mexico.

Engineers will now instruct the capsule to fire up its engines a few more times this afternoon to get into the right position for a landing on Sunday.

Jim Chilton, the senior vice president of Boeing Space and Launch, said engineers don’t know why the clock went off track. Nicole Mann, who would have made her first trip to space on the next mission, said that the astronauts “train extensively for this type of contingency, and had we been on board, there could have been actions that we could have taken,” such as manually controlling the spacecraft. Jim Bridenstine, NASA’s administrator, said that if people had been on board, “our crew would have been safe.” He told reporters he had briefed Vice President Mike Pence, the head of the National Space Council, a policy-setting agency, after the launch.

SpaceX completed its own mission to the ISS in March, with a splashdown in the ocean, Apollo-style. The company experienced its own setback a month later, when its crew capsule exploded and was destroyed during an engine test on the ground.

When the rocket took off this morning, NASA presenters on a live-stream, reporting from Mission Control, in Houston, were cheerful. An hour later, they had cut the feed. In the days before the launch, officials’ prime concern had been that it would be too windy this morning, which would have forced them to postpone the liftoff.

So far, the problem appears not to have originated with the Atlas V rocket, a reliable vehicle that has flown dozens of missions, including sending rovers to Mars and orbiters to Jupiter, and top-secret spy missions. The rocket successfully lofted Starliner to a suborbital trajectory. After that, it was entirely up to the capsule to push itself into the right path and catch up to the space station.

A day before the launch, Bridenstine said Boeing could launch a crew “in the first part” of 2020. Starliner can seat seven, and Mann described how future passengers could include not only astronauts, but teachers, journalists, and artists, who could put into lessons, words, or paintings the surreal experience of being in space.

Now the future of the program is uncertain, particularly for Boeing. It’s unclear what additional tests NASA might now require from Boeing before letting astronauts fly, including, perhaps, another attempt at an uncrewed mission. The capsule’s failure will certainly reshuffle schedules and could contribute to further delays for Boeing, already under scrutiny for its sluggishness in a recent report from NASA’s inspector general. The report said the agency has “overpaid” the company by hundreds of millions of dollars for “unnecessary” work on Commercial Crew that “could have been avoided “through simple changes to the flight manifest.” Both NASA and Boeing disputed the assertion.

The spacecraft failure means yet another cycle of bad news for Boeing. The company has a long history with NASA; it was the prime contractor for the ISS and also worked on the space shuttles. But the company is better known for its airplanes, and in recent months the flaws of its 737 Max, which contributed to two deadly crashes, have put Boeing under intense pressure to prove that its aircraft are safe. Before the Starliner launch, a reporter asked Bridenstine about the specter of Boeing’s aviation woes hanging over its spaceflight efforts. “We’re very comfortable with Boeing as a company,” Bridenstine said. “The people that develop spacecraft are not the same people that develop aircraft.”

NASA has contracted private companies to build its hardware for years, but the agency has never relinquished control of crew-transportation systems like this before. SpaceX provided its own capsule, the Crew Dragon, and rocket, the Falcon 9. Boeing manufactured Starliner and, as part of its joint venture with Lockheed Martin, known as the United Launch Alliance, provided the rocket. NASA oversees development and sets the safety requirements that Boeing and SpaceX must meet. But it’s up to the companies to make it work.

In the coming days, NASA and Boeing teams will review data from Starliner’s short-lived mission. And the space agency will continue its negotiations to buy more seats on the Soyuz, Russia’s transportation system, which can cost as much as $86 million. NASA’s last trip on the Soyuz system is scheduled for April. If neither company’s crew capsule is ready by then, NASA will have to buy more slots to ensure that American astronauts can launch to space.

“This is not the end,” Bridenstine said today. “We will continue to get information, and we will continue sharing information.”

America Is About to Take Back Human Spaceflight, and It – s a Lot More Than Just Flag-Waving

America Is About to Take Back Human Spaceflight, and It’s a Lot More Than Just Flag-Waving

Crewed missions, launched by private companies, will be seen as an American achievement. But really, it’s a global one.

There’s an American flag affixed to a hatch on the International Space Station, circling about 250 miles above the planet. The crew of the first space shuttle mission, STS-1, carried that very flag in 1981. The final shuttle flight, in 2011, left the flag behind in orbit to be claimed by the next crew to fly into space from U.S. soil.

This is the year the flag comes home.

A Long-Awaited Return

After years of radical invention, aerospace design, political feuding, and faith in ingenuity—and eight years since the shuttle retirement—the United States is on the cusp of recapturing the ability to reach space from U.S. soil. Two companies, Boeing and SpaceX, are assembling hardware for testing capsule launches, a dress rehearsal for future crewed flights.

It’s a big moment for the U.S. For one, the launches represent a break from renting Russian hardware to launch astronauts. With recent feats by China in orbit and on the moon, the impulse among many Americans will be extreme pride verging on jingoism, and the return of the U.S. flag, stranded in orbit for the past eight years, will be a useful symbol.

The flights planned from Florida in 2019 will change the way the world approaches human spaceflight.

Of course, some pride is warranted. After all, the modern NASA space program is doing something uniquely American—unleashing the private sector by opening space to commercial interests. Instead of owning the spacecraft and rockets, NASA pays for their development and enables companies to sell rides to anyone who wants a ticket.

But it’s crucial that this achievement not be lost amid the flag-waving. There’s more at stake with these human launches than feeling good about the U.S. The flights planned from Florida in 2019 will change the way the world approaches human spaceflight.

Impending Astronauts

Observers and space freaks flocked to Kennedy Space Center yesterday to see the most tangible, dramatic sign of NASA’s commercial crew program progress yet. Shrouded in fog, SpaceX brought its Falcon 9 rocket, mated with the Dragon 2 capsule, to launch pad 39A for prelaunch testing. The capsule’s flight is scheduled for December 17, 2019.

Boeing will get its turn in March when its Starliner spacecraft will launch on an Atlas V rocket. These empty capsules will travel to orbit, rendezvous with the ISS, dock, detach, and return for splash-down in the Atlantic.

The second demonstration flights will have two test pilot astronauts each. NASA astronauts Robert Behnken, Eric Boe, Douglas Hurley, and Sunita Williams have been preparing for the missions for years, while also developing the capsules and training procedures for the operational missions.

This return to flight will likely happen this summer, around the time that the U.S. celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Apollo lunar landing. Although reminiscent of the Cold War, these launches will be a declaration of independence from the Soyuz capsule.

A space program is still seen as a qualification of a true global superpower, but these manned space missions have an inflated importance when it comes to geopolitical perceptions. In terms of immediate economic impact and national security, CubeSats in low-Earth orbit are more important than any crewed spaceship.

But that will change as space programs mature and the exploration and industrialization of space begins. To see the full, dramatic impact of 2019’s flights requires looking at spaceflight on a longer timeline.

One of the things that becomes clear—looking past the contract to deliver astronauts to ISS—is that American spacecraft will also enable other nations to access space. The customer base for these spacecraft will extend to Europe, South America, Asia, and Africa. The Dragon 2 and Starliner will fly Americans at first, but the whole point is to sell them on the open market.

The American space program could even help geopolitical foes, particularly if export laws are relaxed. John Lodgson, founder of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, once listed some potential customers in an interview with Popular Mechanics.

“Thinking off the top of my head, the United Arab Emirates,” Lodgson says when prodded to name for possible customers. “Nigeria? Iran always wanted a human spaceflight program.”

He also said that China’s program could benefit. “China has said that its space station is open to non-Chinese visitors,” he said. “So where does that fit in to the future of human spaceflight?”

Entering a New Spacefaring Future

In the grand scheme of humanity’s exploration of space, the commercial crew achievement in Florida seems less like an American victory and more like a global moment.

It’s a major transition away from government control, and while this hopefully will have major economic and national security advantages, it’s hard to see NASA’s outsourcing as the pinnacle of government success.

Even with delays and engineering snafus, the coming success of this program should put an end to the debate over whether private businesses can be trusted with crewed spaceflight. NASA has adopted the model that the Commercial Crew program will create a new generation of lunar landers. If these work as planned, the NASA-sponsored landers will be touching down to start planning a lunar outpost, around the same time as other nations are doing the same.

There are many red flags surrounding the American timelines for human missions to the moon and Mars. Administrations change, budgets shift, and missions are killed off with spreadsheet keystrokes. But if—or when—Uncle Sam cuts exploration funds, the private companies who created the hardware will still be in the race, using the moon equipment originally designed for NASA.

The space industry could finally have what it always needed and something the Chinese already enjoy—a steadily funded space program with unchanging destinations and an immunization from political point-scoring. The private sector may be the way to keep some continuity in human space exploration. That is, if there’s money to be made.

2019: A New Era

So be proud of the American victory we will witness in Florida this year. Be happy that the Soyuz contracts will be replaced by something better. Be relieved that the space hardware will no longer be a political football between Moscow and Washington, DC. Be inspired by the engineering on display and the political courage inside and out of NASA to loosen their grip.

But don’t wave the flag too hard. If you do, you might just miss the bigger picture—2019 is the year humanity democratized spaceflight and created a reliable gateway to a new frontier for future generations.

11 of the biggest innovations shaping the future of spaceflight today – Business Insider

11 of the biggest innovations shaping the future of spaceflight today

  • Private companies have started to take the lead in humankind’s march into space.
  • Companies like SpaceX, Boeing, and Virgin Galactic are shaping the future of spaceflight with exciting new innovations.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Most who grew up during the days of the space race were promised a future with moon colonies, orbital space stations, and routine travel to the stars. But that future has always been elusive, since it has long depended upon shifting Congressional priorities and timid funding — currently, NASA’s budget is about $21 billion, or 0.49% of the federal budget.

In recent years, however, private industry has started to take the lead in humankind’s march into space.

Unfortunately, some innovative companies have recently crashed back to earth. Two different startups hoping to become pioneers in the asteroid mining industry — Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries — recently pivoted away from their ambitious space mining plans.

But for every failure, there are a handful of innovators still moving forward, from SpaceX, which recently unveiled its latest prototype of Starship, a rocket system design to populate Mars, to Axiom and its plans to deploy a commercial space station.

Here are the 11 most exciting innovations shaping the future of spaceflight today.

SpaceX has made reusable rockets not just practical, but routine.

In the 11 years since SpaceX’s first successful orbital flight, the rocket company founded by Elon Musk has made its mission to pioneer the creation of rocket boosters that can land vertically, like the cover picture of a 1950s-era sci-fi novel, then be reused for another flight.

SpaceX has successfully landed 44 boosters out of 52 attempts after using them to launch payloads toward space. More than half of the recovered boosters have flown more than once with relatively little refurbishment. The company has made reusability routine, setting the stage for inexpensive spaceflight and routine missions to orbit, the moon, and possibly even Mars.

Virgin Galactic is preparing to fly passengers to space for 20 minutes of weightlessness more than 50 miles high.

In 2004, an air-launched rocket-powered aircraft called SpaceShipOne won the $10 million Ansari X Prize for successfully carrying a three-person crew to space and back again twice in a two week period.

It was an achievement that may have kicked off the age of space tourism in a reusable spacecraft. Virgin Group founder Richard Branson soon formed Virgin Galactic and started development of SpaceShipTwo, a larger vehicle that could routinely take six passengers and two pilots to the edge of space to experience zero gravity for “several” minutes before landing on a runway.

Though Virgin Galactic hasn’t met its original timetable , the company’s current prototype spacecraft, VSS Unity, has flown above 50 miles twice , qualifying as a spaceflight by American standards, though the FAA defines the border with space at the Kármán line, which is 62 miles high.

Virgin Galactic has completed its spaceport near Las Cruces, New Mexico, and is proceeding with construction of two more SpaceShipTwos . While routine commercial operations aren’t imminent, earlier this year Richard Branson said , “Next year I’ll be going up.”

Boeing has spent a decade developing the CST-100 Starliner, the next generation crew capsule that may take civilian tourists to the space station.

At first glance, the Boeing CST-100 Starliner looks like a throwback to the days of the Gemini and Apollo missions. It’s a crew transport developed for NASA to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station, and it looks like a modernized Apollo capsule.

But the Starliner is much more. Designed to accommodate crews of up to seven people and able to spend nearly seven months in orbit, it’s also intended to be reused up to 10 times. NASA commissioned the Starliner as a part of its Commercial Crew Development program in 2009 as a replacement for the now retired space shuttle. It’s not the only spacecraft in development for space station taxi duty — SpaceX is developing the Dragon 2 capsule, which is neck and neck with Starliner for a first crewed flight, likely in early 2020.

But that’s not the most exciting news for space tourism advocates. Space Adventures has shown interest in flying the Starliner to the ISS, and Boeing is exploring other partnerships for tourism as well.

John Mulholland, the Boeing Starliner program manager, says there’s been “a lot of interest from both paying passengers but also other companies and other nations that are either part of the space station community and want additional access or are building their own destinations.”

SpaceX is building the most powerful rocket in history.

On September 28, Elon Musk unveiled the latest prototype of Starship . The final vehicle is designed to be two stages: a spaceship of the same name that sits atop a Super Heavy booster. When the full system flies into orbit for the first time — possibly within the next two years — it’s expected to be the largest and most powerful rocket ever flown .

The Saturn V, which sent humans to the moon nine times , could put 130 tons in low earth orbit. Starship, in comparison, should be able to hoist 150 tons to orbit — while preserving enough fuel to return both stages to earth to be reused for additional flights.

The Super Heavy will be powered by an array of no fewer than 24 Raptor engines burning liquid methane with liquid oxygen. Critics have compared Super Heavy to the ill-fated Soviet N1 moon rocket, which never got more than 25 miles off the ground because Soviet rocket engineers couldn’t tame the ungainly cluster of 30 engines. But SpaceX has demonstrated expertise with reliably firing engine clusters — the Falcon Heavy, which has now flown twice , is comprised of 27 Merlin-1D engines.

Axiom is planning to launch a private space station to replace the ISS.

The fate of the International Space Station may be uncertain. It’s scheduled to be decommissioned in just five years, after which it may be handed off to commercial operators or simply deorbited, to crash into the Pacific. But there’s already a company ready to step in to fill the void. Axiom Space was founded in 2016 to develop a commercial space station to facilitate both industry and space tourism.

Axiom isn’t the first company to propose building its own space station, but it has heavy hitters from NASA on its payroll, including a ISS program manager, and is trying to move fast. Axiom has announced plans to routinely offer 10-day visits to the ISS. The company also said it intends to start launching its own modules to the ISS starting sometime after 2020.

Eventually, Axiom hopes to launch its own power and propulsion modules and re-link its ISS modules into its own stand-alone space station. The company expects to be able to do all this for about $1.8 billion. In comparison, the ISS cost NASA roughly $150 billion.

Orion Span hopes to let people spend their honeymoon in low earth orbit on a luxury space station.

Unlike Axiom, which has its sights set on a large orbital platform that can pick up where the ISS left off, Orion Span has a much narrower focus. It’s planning the Aurora Space Station, a modestly sized station with a complement of six people — two crew and four visitors. Orion hopes to woo wealthy space tourists who can spend about $9.5 million for a 12-day stay.

The station will be about 12 feet wide and 35 feet long, with private sleeping pods, luxury décor, and plenty of viewing areas. The real innovation here is that Aurora thinks it can do this on a veritable shoestring budget. Instead of hundreds of millions of dollars, Orion Span CEO Frank Bunger told the Berkley Haas School of Business that the initial single-module station could be built for a tiny fraction of that: $65 million.

Unfortunately, the future of Aurora is uncertain. The company was looking to raise $2 million through a crowdfunding campaign, but appears to have raised just 10% of that goal.

Bigelow is planning to build an inflatable space station — and it’s already deployed an inflatable modules on the ISS.

Bigelow Aerospace is planning to orbit its own space station, which is remarkable enough. But it’s how the company plans to build this station that makes it revolutionary.

Founded in 1999, Bigelow is one of the more established aerospace companies working in low earth orbit. The company has long evangelized inflatable modules. Built of a soft, expandable material, they’re lightweight and pack into a relatively small space for launch, but can be pressurized and expanded once in orbit. Designed with a Kevlar-like material, they’re as strong and robust as traditional space station technologies. In fact, Bigelow acquired the technology for expandable modules from NASA, which had originally considered using it for sections of the ISS.

Bigelow has been flying an inflatable module onto the ISS for more than two years, and is now developing a private space station for industrial applications and space tourism. Currently, the company is promoting its inflatable B330, which it says is an autonomous station that can be orbited in a single launch, rather than assembled in orbit after multiple launches. It can accommodate four people with two galleys, two toilets, large cargo space and two propulsion systems.

The Gateway Foundation wants to build an enormous rotating space station like the one in ‘2001: A Space Odyssey.’

There’s a lot of interest in private space stations, but none more ambitious than the Von Braun Station. An enormous Ferris wheel in space, Von Braun would measure 1,600 feet (about a third of a mile) in diameter, have almost 12 million cubic meters of pressurized volume, and spin in order to provide simulated gravity for the occupants. As a point of comparison, the ISS has 32,333 cubic feet of pressurized volume — hundreds of times less, and about the same as a Boeing 747.

The station is the goal of the Gateway Foundation. Like the now-defunct Mars One organization that wanted to put colonists on Mars through some sort of reality TV programming, it seems like the Gateway Foundation might have impractical expectations.

But the Foundation has engineering drawings and plans to build the station using two dozen Bigelow B330 inflatable modules, along with a membership program that includes space advocacy and a pathway to working in orbit on the space station.

The Aerospace Corporation has proposed the equivalent of shipping containers for launching small satellites.

When the now-ubiquitous shipping container was introduced in the 1960s, it radically transformed the workflow of loading and unloading cargo ships and consequently revolutionized the global economy. Similarly, the Aerospace Corporation has proposed a standard “launch unit” for small satellites that could remake the launch industry.

It’s hard to overstate the complexity of a space launch manifest today. Payload owners need to work closely with launch providers to find room aboard a scheduled launch and “rideshare” on the rocket. If something goes wrong — for example, the primary payload gets scrubbed or the ridesharing smallsat suffers its own delay that forces it to move to another launch date — the complex process has to start all over again.

In a statement, Aerospace Corporation said , “Developing a standard Launch Unit, or Launch-U, for mid-sized smallsats — approximately the size between a toaster and a small refrigerator — will enable rideshares to be configured more quickly and efficiently, resulting in more launch opportunities at a lower cost.”

Moon Express is on target to send a lunar lander to the moon in 2020.

From 2007 to 2018, Google sponsored an X Prize that would have awarded $30 million to the first team that could land a robotic spacecraft on the moon, travel 500 meters, and send high definition video of the excursion back to Earth. At the time, a number of teams completed for the prize, but none were able to launch before the competition was terminated.

But a few teams soldiered on, even without the potential of winning a prize. Moon Express is one of the few remaining competitors still in the race, and plans to launch in July 2020. The company is building a lander, dubbed the MX-1E, which will land on the moon’s south polar region to look for the presence of water in support of future manned missions and lunar settlements.

With any luck, it won’t suffer a similar fate as the private Israeli moon lander, Beresheet, which crashed into the lunar surface because of a software glitch.

SpaceX may use Starship to rocket passengers anywhere on Earth in about a half hour.

This may be SpaceX’s third appearance in this list, but it’s well deserved. In addition to flying resupply missions to ISS, planning a private Apollo 8-style mission around the moon, and moving full speed ahead on a plan to populate Mars, the company has announced plans to use its massive Starship system to fly suborbital missions to routinely ferry passengers around the world in about half an hour.

Both rocket scientists and sci-fi novelists have talked about the potential for getting between any two points on earth in less than an hour. After all, that’s the idea behind nuclear-tipped ICBMs. But in 2017, Elon Musk unveiled a plan to actually do it. Sometime in the 2020s, you might be able to board in New York and disembark in Paris 30 minutes later, or go from London to Hong Kong in 34 minutes.

The best part is that you’d get to see the curvature of Earth from space and experience a ride like Disney’s Space Mountain in the process, says Musk.

Rocket Lab launches satellites for Spaceflight

Rocket Lab launches satellites for Spaceflight

WASHINGTON — A Rocket Lab Electron rocket launched an Earth imaging satellite and several smaller satellites on a mission for rideshare services company Spaceflight June 29.

The Electron lifted off from Rocket Lab’s Launch Complex 1 on New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula at 12:30 a.m. Eastern, with the rocket’s upper stage deploying the satellites into low Earth orbit 53 minutes later. The launch was delayed two days by problems with ground tracking equipment that Peter Beck, the company’s founder and chief executive, said will soon be phased out in favor of an autonomous flight termination system.

Rocket Lab carried out the launch for Spaceflight, the Seattle-based company that offers rideshare services on a variety of vehicles. The launch is the first of as many as five Electron missions this year for Spaceflight, carrying a mix of small satellites.

The largest satellite on this mission is Global-3 for Earth imaging company BlackSky. The satellite, weighing about 60 kilograms, will be the company’s first to go into a medium-inclination orbit, providing faster revisit times over selected areas of the Earth.

“As we continue our constellation expansion, it will be critical to leverage the frequent launch cadence Spaceflight offers through Rocket Lab and others, and we’re excited to be on this inaugural mission,” Brian O’Toole, chief executive of BlackSky, said in the statement.

Six other satellites are also on the rocket, bring the total payload mass to the mission to approximately 80 kilograms. Two of the satellites are Prometheus cubesats for U.S. Special Operations Command, believed to be used for tactical communications. Two others are SpaceBEE smallsats for Swarm, a company developing a constellation of such satellites for Internet of Things services. The fifth satellite is ACRUX-1, an Australian student-built cubesat, and the sixth is for an undisclosed customer.

Launching on Electron offers a new approach for Spaceflight, which has traditionally provided launches for smallsats as secondary payloads on larger launch vehicles. The company did purchase a dedicated Falcon 9 mission, called SSO-A, that launched 64 satellites last December.

Electron offers the company the ability to provide dedicated launches, with control over orbit and schedule, but for smaller numbers of satellites at a time. “Having the Electron in our arsenal of small launch vehicles provides our customers with a low-cost, flexible option to get on orbit,” Curt Blake, chief executive of Spaceflight, said in a pre-launch statement.

The mission was the third of 2019 for Spaceflight, after a mission in February where it launched SpaceIL’s Beresheet launch as a secondary payload on a Falcon 9 and one in March that launched 21 satellites as secondary payloads on an Indian Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle. Speaking at the Space Enterprise Summit here June 26, Blake said the company planned to perform as many as 19 launches in 2019.

“What we try to do is buy up the excess capacity on all these different launch vehicles to drive efficiencies,” he said at the summit. “Launch is a scarce resource, and it’s really important that we use all the performance of those launch vehicles to get as much into orbit as we can, because that drives launch costs lower.”

The launch was the third this year for Rocket Lab’s Electron small launch vehicle. The Electron launched DARPA’s Radio Frequency Risk Reduction Deployment Demonstration (R3D2) satellite in March, and three technology demonstration satellites for the U.S. Air Force in May.

Lars Hoffman, senior vice president of global launch services at Rocket Lab, said during a June 6 panel discussion at the National Space Society’s International Space Development Conference that the company plans to move towards monthly launches of Electron after this mission.

“The value that we bring to the market is being able to launch on a monthly cadence,” he said, providing assurances to companies, and their investors, that their payloads can get into orbit on schedule. “There’s a lot of pent-up demand.”

Mark your calendars: 2019 spaceflight events you don – t want to miss

Mark your calendars: 2019 spaceflight events you don’t want to miss

In the past year, NASA landed a probe on Mars, China launched a spacecraft to the far side of the moon, and commercial spaceflight firms like SpaceX and Virgin Galactic made important strides in their quest to take their first paying passengers into space.

But if 2018 was a busy one for spaceflight, the coming year promises to be even busier. Among other things, the schedule includes a historic flyby of the most distant object ever visited, the debut of new astronaut capsules and the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission that put humans on the moon for the first time.

“It’s going to be incredibly exciting,” said Eric Stallmer, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, an industry group in Washington. “I’m a huge student of history and I adore the whole Apollo era, but that was one of the early chapters, and we’re looking at the next chapters in the coming year.”

Here are the most noteworthy space events scheduled for 2019 (all launch dates are subject to change):


NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft conducts flyby of Ultima Thule

The New Horizons probe was designed to study Pluto. But after its successful rendezvous with the dwarf planet in 2015, the craft continued speeding along into the Kuiper Belt, a debris-filled region of the solar system beyond the orbit of Neptune. Here, at a distance of about 4 billion miles from Earth, New Horizons will zoom past the icy object 2014 MU69, which is nicknamed Ultima Thule, on Jan. 1.

The New Year’s rendezvous will make Ultima the most distant object ever visited by a spacecraft.

China makes first landing on the far side of the moon

On Dec. 7, China launched its robotic Chang’e 4 spacecraft on the world’s first mission to the far side of the moon. The robotic lander and the rover being carried on the craft could touch down as early as Jan. 1 within the South Pole-Aitken basin, one of the moon’s largest and oldest impact craters.

The Chang’e 4 mission is a prelude to a successor robotic mission, Chang’e 5, which is designed to return lunar samples to Earth.

SpaceX performs first test flight of new crew capsule

SpaceX has been developing its Crew Dragon capsule as a replacement for NASA’s space shuttles, which were retired in 2011. The new craft is designed to ferry up to seven astronauts to and from the International Space Station, ending NASA’s reliance on Russia’s Soyuz capsules.

During its first uncrewed test flight, which is scheduled for Jan. 17, the capsule will launch aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida, dock with the space station and then return to Earth, splashing down in the Atlantic Ocean

If it’s successful, the Crew Dragon’s first test flight with astronauts aboard will follow later in the year.


Science 19 bold predictions for science and technology in 2019

Israel launches its first spacecraft to the moon

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Sometime in the first quarter of 2019, a Tel Aviv-based nonprofit called SpaceIL will launch a 1,322-pound lunar lander on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida. After a two-month journey, the lander will touch down on the moon, with the earliest landing attempt pegged for Feb. 13.

With the mission, Israel hopes to become the fourth nation to land a craft on the moon, after the U.S., Russia and China.

SpaceIL was formed to compete in Google’s Lunar X Prize competition, a now-defunct international contest that offered $20 million to the group that could send the first privately funded spacecraft to the moon. The competition ended with no winner in March 2018.

India launches its second mission to the moon

On Jan. 31, India’s space agency will launch its second lunar mission, Chandrayaan-2, sending a robotic orbiter, lander and rover to the moon. Chandrayaan-2, which will touch down at the lunar south pole, will study the moon’s mineral content and its topography.

India’s first lunar mission, Chandrayaan-1, launched in October 2008. That mission found evidence of water ice on the moon’s surface.


British startup launches first set of satellites for all-Earth internet

Sometime in February, a London-based startup called OneWeb will launch the first 10 satellites of what ultimately will be a fleet of 600 telecommunications satellites designed to provide high-speed internet service to every part of the world. The satellites will launch aboard an Arianespace Soyuz rocket from the Guiana Space Centre in French Guiana.

Soyuz rocket takes crew to the International Space Station

On Feb. 28, a Russian Soyuz rocket will lift off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, carrying NASA astronauts Nick Hague and Christina Koch and Russian cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin to the ISS. The crew will join three spaceflyers who are already aboard the station.


Boeing conducts first test flight of its CST-100 Starliner capsule

Like SpaceX, Boeing is developing a space capsule to replace NASA’s retired space shuttle fleet. Sometime in March, Its CST-100 Starliner will take its maiden flight aboard an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida, with the uncrewed capsule docking with the space station before parachuting back to Earth. If the test is successful, Boeing could conduct crewed test flights of the Starliner in August.

SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket returns to space

SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy booster completed its maiden launch on Feb. 6, 2018, lifting off from Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, and launching a Tesla Roadster into space. On its second flight, which is planned for early in 2019, the huge rocket will carry 25 individual payloads for the U.S. military and NASA, including weather satellites and a space radiation experiment.

The Falcon Heavy can lift a heavier payload than any American rocket since NASA’s Saturn V booster, which carried Apollo astronauts to the moon in the 1960s and ’70s.

SpaceX launches first crewed test flight of its Crew Dragon capsule

If the uncrewed test flight of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon is successful, the craft will return to space with two spaceflyers aboard. NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken will fly Crew Dragon to the space station.

Three space station crew members return to Earth

NASA astronaut Anne McClain, Canadian astronaut David Saint-Jacques and Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko will return to Earth in their Soyuz capsule, landing in Kazakhstan sometime in June.

China conducts first test of next-generation crewed spacecraft

China is expected to test the successor to its crewed Shenzhou spacecraft sometime in mid-2019, but a detailed timeline of the mission hasn’t yet been revealed. For its first test flight, the reusable 20-ton spacecraft will launch aboard a Chinese Long March 5B rocket without a crew. China currently uses its Shenzhou spacecraft for trips to and from low-Earth orbit.

50th anniversary of Apollo 11 moon landing

On July 20, it will be 50 years since astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first human to step foot on the moon. As he climbed down the ladder of his lunar module and stepped onto the surface of the moon in 1969, Armstrong uttered the line that became famous: “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” Armstrong and his crewmate Buzz Aldrin explored the moon’s surface for almost three hours before climbing back into their lunar module and heading home.


China launches sample-return mission to the moon

After its Chang’e 4 mission to the lunar far side, China will attempt an even more ambitious lunar mission sometime toward the end of the year. Chang’e 5 will include a lander designed to collect samples of lunar rocks and soil and return them to Earth.

If successful, it would be the first time materials from the moon will have been brought back to Earth since 1976.

Want more stories about spaceflight?


Denise Chow is a reporter for NBC News Science focused on the environment and space.

The Greatest Spaceflight Moments of 2019, Space

The Greatest Spaceflight Moments of 2019

Three lunar missions, commercial spaceflight milestones, the first all-woman spacewalk — 2019 was a busy year in space for public and private entities alike.

NASA looked forward to new moon landings while celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. SpaceX launched its first commercial crew spacecraft and lofted a miniature prototype of its massive Starship vehicle. Planetary missions began and ended, sometimes much sooner than planned.

Let’s look back on some spaceflight highlights of 2019.

SpaceX Crew Dragon Demo-1

In March, NASA got one step closer to achieving its goal of launching U.S. astronauts on American vehicles again when SpaceX launched the first uncrewed demonstration flight of the company’s Crew Dragon spacecraft to the International Space Station.

The vehicle made a flawless approach to the station and berthed with the orbiting complex for a brief visit before returning to Earth. However, the Crew Dragon later caught fire during a test of the capsule’s abort engines, which would carry a crew to safety in the event of an anomaly during launch; SpaceX has since fired the same engines on other capsules without incident.

Boeing’s Starliner crew capsule made a similar launch on Dec. 20 but failed to dock with the International Space Station, rounding out a year full of commercial crew preparations. NASA recently came under criticism from the agency’s Office of Inspector General because of continuing delays in the program’s crewed flights.

China lands on moon’s far side

China’s Chang’e 4 lander and Yutu 2 rover made an epic landing on Jan. 3 at Von Kármán crater on the far side of the moon. The mission marks the first time that any spacecraft has soft-landed on the moon’s far side. It’s a challenging feat because the moon blocks signals to our planet, so these vehicles require supplemental satellite relays to stay in touch with Earth.

The lander and rover are still going strong after nearly a year on the lunar surface, sending back pictures and data for astronomers. The rover has examined an interesting substance on the moon that may be volcanic glass; the lander carried the first plant to sprout on the moon’s far side.

All-woman spacewalk

NASA astronauts Christina Koch and Jessica Meir made history on Oct. 18 when they performed the first all-female spacewalk. Although women have been doing spacewalks since 1984, this was the first time that two women conducted a spacewalk together. The pair worked on some tricky batteries attached to the space station’s exterior.

NASA had attempted to conduct an all-female spacewalk earlier in the year, but the agency reassigned one of the astronauts to a different spacewalk because of equipment issues; one of the astronauts had realized that she felt safer and more comfortable using a spacesuit size that was already claimed for that operation.

Female astronaut begins yearlong mission in space

Rookie astronaut Koch got other exciting news early in her mission, when NASA crew reassignments in April meant that her stay on the space station would be extended to nearly a year in space, at 326 days — the longest-ever single spaceflight by a woman. She will return to Earth in February.

The schedule-juggling was primarily meant to make room for a weeklong mission by Hazzaa Ali Almansoori, the first astronaut from the United Arab Emirates, on a seat purchased from the Russian space agency, Roscosmos.

The extended mission also offers NASA an opportunity to gather more data on how the human body reacts to long-duration spaceflight, following the 340-day mission of NASA astronaut Scott Kelly and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko in 2015 to 2016.

LightSail 2 success

The nonprofit organization The Planetary Society successfully deployed a solar sail in space when it launched its LightSail 2 mission to Earth orbit on July 8. The solar-sailing spacecraft successfully unfurled its sail in late July and is still sending data back to Earth about the spacecraft’s performance in orbit.

The long-term dream for solar sailing is to send spacecraft to more distant destinations — perhaps even beyond our solar system — using minimal fuel. LightSail 2 follows LightSail 1, a smaller demonstration test that The Planetary Society completed in 2015, as well as Japan’s Ikaros, which became the first successful solar-sailing mission in 2010.

SpaceX’s Starhopper and Starship

SpaceX unleashed two prototype vehicles for Starship, its massive, and perhaps Mars-bound, vehicle. First, the company unveiled the miniature, single-engine Starhopper in March. The hopper conducted a series of three vertical takeoff and landing tests, with the flights peaking at several hundred feet in altitude.

The next test vehicle, a full-size Starship model, blew its top during a cryogenic pressure test on Nov. 20 at SpaceX’s facilities near Boca Chica in south Texas. SpaceX representatives said the company plans to create more advanced prototypes instead of repairing and retesting this first prototype.

Starlink and constellation launches

SpaceX launched its first two installments of the Starlink constellation, which now includes 120 satellites in space. The company hopes to eventually launch up to 42,000 of these devices.

Those grand plans have concerned spaceflight experts who are worried about orbital debris, even though SpaceX has said these vehicles are equipped with sensors to dodge trouble. (In September, the European Space Agency had to move one of its weather satellites to avoid a potential collision.)

SpaceX has also been criticized for how reflective these satellites are; astronomers say it could interfere with their views. The company plans to test an anti-reflective coating on future Starlink devices as it ramps up its launch frequency in 2020.

India Chandrayaan-2 moon crash

The orbiter component of India’s Chandrayaan-2 mission made it to the moon with no issues, but the same cannot be said of its lander, Vikram, which crashed into the surface during a soft-landing attempt on Sept. 6.

In November, the Indian government said that issues with the braking thrusters contributed to the issue that led to Vikram’s crash. The Indian Space Research Organisation spent two months investigating the landing and trying to reestablish contact with the lander before making its assessment that Vikram had indeed crashed.

India destroys a satellite

In March, India unexpectedly tested an anti-satellite missile, becoming the fourth country with such a capability. The test, dubbed “Mission Shakti,” destroyed an Indian satellite in low-Earth orbit and created a cloud of debris, which spaceflight experts worried may cause damage to intact spacecraft.

Spacefaring countries worry about the spread of anti-satellite technology, since there’s no reason a country with such skills can’t turn them against expensive, sensitive satellites owned and operated by other countries.

Israeli Beresheet lander crash

Israel also showed how challenging moon landings are, when its privately funded Beresheet robotic lander also crashed during a landing attempt in April. Mission control lost communication with the spacecraft, which was built by SpaceIL and Israel Aerospace Industries, when it was 489 feet (149 meters) above the lunar surface.

SpaceIL plans to go to another destination for its next mission, but as of a June announcement, the company had not revealed where.

NASA marks Apollo 11 at 50, aims for Moon 2024

NASA’s first human moon landing 50 years ago came into focus in July, when the agency held numerous events to mark the anniversary of the historic feat by the Apollo 11 crew and some 400,000 workers who made it happen.

Meanwhile, NASA is still working toward its aim of landing humans on the moon in 2024, including readying the first Artemis program mission, an uncrewed loop around the moon, for launch in 2021. The agency is working to raise support domestically and among international partners to sustain the needed funding to meet the deadline that was set by the Trump administration in March.

Virgin Galactic flies test passenger, goes public

It was also a busy year for Virgin Galactic, which achieved numerous milestones leading to its attempt to fly the first paying passengers aboard SpaceShipTwo in 2020. The company went public, unveiled its spacesuits and officially moved test flights to its permanent home at Spaceport America in New Mexico.

Virgin Galactic also carried its first passenger, astronaut trainer Beth Moses, on a flight to begin understanding the experience its customers will experience. It “was silent and beautiful and clear, and I was quite happy to be near the cockpit with our pilots, to celebrate apogee,” she said shortly after the flight. “And we all sort of marveled at how magic it was.”

There is a ton of exciting space stuff on tap for 2019, Ars Technica

There is a ton of exciting space stuff on tap for 2019

New rockets, commercial crew, planetary missions, and even SpaceX’s Starship.

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The year 2018 saw some great moments in spaceflight, such as the dazzling launch of the Falcon Heavy rocket in February and the flight of Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity spacecraft to 82km above the Earth’s surface. But in many ways, 2018 was a developmental year for what could be some amazing spaceflight achievements in 2019.

So with the dawn of a new year, we’re looking ahead to what may come in 2019 for those eagerly waiting as the government and private spaceflight push back against the final frontier.

Small-sat launch race

Rocket Lab took huge strides in 2018 by launching its Electron booster three times, including twice in the last two months. The company has targeted a dozen launches in 2019 with its rocket, optimized for boosting small satellites and CubeSats into low-Earth orbit. Given its progression last year, it is difficult to bet against Rocket Lab at least coming close to that target.

Rocket Lab’s success likely leaves room for perhaps two more dedicated small satellite launch vehicles, and there are literally dozens of companies seeking to acquire a piece of this commercial, civil space, and national security market. Among the front-runners heading into the new year are Virgin Orbit, which has conducted captive-carry tests of its air-launched rocket; Vector Launch; and Firefly, which aims to launch its first Alpha rocket before the end of 2019.

Further Reading

Seeing how these companies, and others operating in stealth mode, perform in 2019 will be one of the most compelling stories of the year. After years of development, it’s a make-or-break year for a lot of the budding small-satellite launch industry.

Commercial crew

This is probably the year that NASA’s commercial crew program finally gets off the ground. Originally, the agency targeted 2015 for the launch of private spacecraft built by Boeing and SpaceX to the International Space Station, but chronic underfunding by Congress hampered development. Since 2017, however, the delays have resulted from a combination of technical challenges, over-optimistic schedules, and a somewhat cumbersome government review program.

Further Reading

However, steady work by engineers at the companies and NASA appear to have pushed through the technical challenges and paperwork issues, and now we’re getting closer to flight. SpaceX appears to be first up, with the possible launch of a demonstration of its Dragon spacecraft later this month. If this test flight goes well, a launch carrying astronauts Doug Hurley and Robert Behnken could follow as early as July or August this year.

Boeing, too, is closing in on its test flight and probably will also launch a human crew later this year. As of July 2019, it will have been eight years since the space shuttle retired. Since that time, NASA has relied on Russia and its Soyuz spacecraft to get humans into space, so launching humans into orbit from Florida this year will be a big deal.

Space tourism

As noted above, Virgin Galactic reached space in December (although the definition of space varies). With this milestone flight, the company appears on track to begin flying customers at some point in 2019, which would make it the first firm to offer suborbital space tourism rides to paying customers.

Further Reading

However, Virgin may soon be followed by Blue Origin later this year. The company delayed an uncrewed test flight from December into this month, but officials say it is still on track to begin flying “test passengers” in 2019, although it is not clear when commercial flights will follow. Blue Origin’s launch system will take passengers above 100km, so there will be no debate about whether customers will “reach space.”

In any case, after more than a decade of promises, this probably will be the year that space tourism really begins to take off.

Planetary science

The New Horizons mission got the new year off to a bang with the successful flyby of Ultima Thule, a distant object in the Solar System. This flyby will yield a trove of data about the mysterious, peanut-shaped rock over the year as it trickles back in from the spacecraft. This, truly, represents the exploration of undiscovered country.

Further Reading

Meanwhile, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft also has entered orbit around the Bennu asteroid, and it will fly a series of closer passes of the asteroid this year. Although the spacecraft will not attempt to sample the asteroid’s surface until 2020, OSIRIS-REx will study the asteroid in great detail—mapping the topology of the space rock to a greater resolution than even the Earth’s surface. Japan’s Hayabusa2 spacecraft will also continue to study the asteroid Ryugu this year.

On Mars, NASA’s InSight lander has made steady progress since landing in November. Soon, InSight will deploy its heat probe, and six days later the lander will begin hammering its probe five meters down below the surface of Mars. Finally, by March 2, all of the lander’s instruments will reach their science-taking configurations, and we should be treated to some real Martian geology.

Closer to home, China’s Chang’e-4 spacecraft will very soon attempt a landing on the far side of the Moon. This mission should provide scientists (to the extent China releases data) with their best-ever window into the lunar surface on the relatively unexplored far side of the Moon in 2019.


Over the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, SpaceX founder Elon Musk tweeted a number of details about the design of the Starship vehicle that SpaceX is developing to fly on top of its “Super Heavy” rocket. Among the details Musk shared is that the company has gone with a stainless steel material for its Starship vehicle because of its optimal strength-to-weight ratio.

Further Reading

Musk also said the company is moving “hopper” test flights of the Starship vehicle forward, possibly into the second quarter of 2019. After some tests, Musk said he would reveal more technical details about the new vehicle.

Any test flights of Starship would be significant, as it seems that SpaceX must demonstrate some hardware before investors (and possibly government customers) step forward with funds needed to bring the Starship and its large rocket to completion. One of the big questions of 2019 is whether additional customers emerge for this ambitious spacecraft and launch system.