SpaceX and its kick-ass, phenomenal, totally awesome 2020

There's no question who's king of private aerospace hill.

2020 has been very good to SpaceX with the aerospace transportation firm surpassing a number of milestones and achieving virtually every goal it set out for itself during the year. Both the company’s autonomous and crewed space vehicles operated without any major failures as SpaceX earned its NASA flight certification, along with deals with the US Space Force and private industry. There was one mishap, with its prototype Starship vehicle, during 2020 and even that only slightly set back SpaceX’s march towards market dominance.

The year started with a splash — literally. On January 7th, more than a month after it had launched, the Dragon cargo capsule of mission CRS-19 hit the water just west of Baja, California where crews recovered the capsule as well as 3,800 pounds of scientific gear and experiments. The following and aptly named CRS-20 mission in March marked the 20th time overall that SpaceX vehicles have resupplied the ISS and returned safely to Earth. Over the course of those 20 missions, SpaceX has hauled some 94,000 pounds of supplies and equipment up to the ISS and ferried another 74,000 pounds of cargo back down. A final delivery to the ISS in April marked both the end of SpaceX’s original contract with NASA and the final flight of the first-generation Dragon cargo capsule design, which has since been replaced with the updated and more versatile Dragon 2.

The company also improved its launch vehicle recovery methods over the course of the year. In July, SpaceX crews managed to snag both halves of the nose cone fairing out of mid air using a large net set atop a recovery ship — a technique similar to what Rocket Lab recently demonstrated with its Electron recovery system. Those nose cone fairings are worth $6 million combined so retrieving them unharmed, before they hit the ocean’s surface with any appreciable speed, is of paramount importance.

Of course, before SpaceX could officially switch over from its older cargo capsules, the company had to prove that the Dragon 2 crew capsule variants were safe and sturdy enough to shuttle people to the ISS and back. As such, SpaceX successfully demonstrated its Dragon crew capsule launch escape system in mid-January. Taking off from launch complex 39A at Kennedy Space Center, the uncrewed Falcon 9 rocket flew for just 90 seconds before the abort signal was activated, causing the crew capsule to forcefully separate from the rest of the rocket. The capsule blasted away at 400 mph before deploying its parachutes and landing safely in the Atlantic for recovery.

SpaceX’s next challenge came in June with the delicate launch of the DEMO-2 mission — the first time that the crew capsule carried actual humans. After one scrubbed launch attempt, astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley successfully lifted off from Launch Complex 39A, marking the first instance of US astronauts launching from US soil since the end of the Shuttle era in 2011.

“Today a new era in human spaceflight begins as we once again launched American astronauts on American rockets from American soil on their way to the International Space Station, our national lab orbiting Earth,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a June press release. “I thank and congratulate Bob Behnken, Doug Hurley, and the SpaceX and NASA teams for this significant achievement for the United States. The launch of this commercial space system designed for humans is a phenomenal demonstration of American excellence and is an important step on our path to expand human exploration to the Moon and Mars.”

19 hours after launch, the pair of astronauts docked with and entered the ISS, their temporary home of the next month until they climbed back into the Dragon crew capsule, detached from the ISS and jetted back down to the surface with a dramatic ocean landing.

SpaceX has been in business for nearly two decades and has spent that time diligently refining its rockets’ designs and construction, perfecting its launch and recovery operations. All that hard work paid off in November when NASA formally certified the Crew Dragon — that’s the Falcon 9 and the capsule itself — as the “first commercial spacecraft system in history capable of transporting humans to and from the International Space Station as part of the agency’s Commercial Crew Program,” according to a release.

“I’m extremely proud to say we are returning regular human spaceflight launches to American soil on an American rocket and spacecraft,” Bridenstine said. “This certification milestone is an incredible achievement from NASA and SpaceX that highlights the progress we can make working together with commercial industry.”

As if that wasn’t enough to give SpaceX CEO Elon Musk something to crow about, less than a week later, the CREW-1 mission successfully launched from Kennedy Space Center in Florida with not two but a full complement of four astronauts aboard. NASA astronauts Mike Hopkins, Victor Glover, Shannon Walker, and JAXA astronaut Soichi Noguchi arrived at the ISS on November 16th ahead of a six-month stint on the station. Coincidentally, Victor Glover is the first black astronaut to live aboard the ISS for a six-month stint since, well, ever. In the 22 years that the ISS has been orbiting the Earth, black astronauts have never stayed aboard for more than a few days. The CREW-1 mission is only the start. SpaceX has plans for two more crewed launches in 2021 and again in 2022.

And it’s not just NASA that SpaceX has found a home with in 2020. In August, The Space Force Space and Missile Command (SMC) announced that it had selected SpaceX, and rival ULA, for five year contracts for their National Security Space launch services — essentially putting spy satellites into orbit. The contract runs through 2024 with the first launch, with its whopping $316 million price tag, to take place in 2022. What’s more, in November, Space Force handed SpaceX an additional $29.5 million for a one-year contract that “provides early integration studies and fleet surveillance for non-national security space missions,” per the award announcement.

“This is a groundbreaking day, culminating years of strategic planning and effort by the Department of the Air Force, NRO and our launch service industry partners,” Dr. William Roper, Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics said in an August statement. “Maintaining a competitive launch market, servicing both government and commercial customers, is how we encourage continued innovation on assured access to space. Today’s awards mark a new epoch of space launch that will finally transition the Department off Russian RD-180 engines.”

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Additionally, SpaceX has signed on to deliver a new generation of GPS satellites into orbit as part of its SpaceForce deal. Built by Lockheed Martin, the GPS III Space Vehicle will have three times better accuracy and up to eight times improved anti-jamming capabilities. What’s more it will remain in orbit for 15 years — 25 percent longer than the current generation of satellites.

SpaceX’s quest for military contracts isn’t limited to the US. In July, the same Falcon 9 that brought  Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to the ISS, toted the Army/Navy/Air Force Satellite Information System 2 (ANASIS-II), a secure communications satellite for the South Korean Agency for Defense Development, into geosynchronous orbit.

On August 30th, a different Falcon 9 carrying the SAOCOM 1B, an Argentinean Earth Observation satellite used to provide radar data to emergency responders, launched from Cape Canaveral. Interestingly, the rocket took a Southern route that would lead it towards Cuba, rather than East as virtually every other launch from that site has headed since 1969. It’s rare to have polar orbit launches, such as this one, leave from the East coast. Typically they fly out of Vandenberg AFB in California, so that way, they don’t have to fly over any island countries that we’ve nearly started a nuclear war with. However SpaceX managed to finagle a special Air Force exemption thanks to the Falcon 9’s ability to automatically self-destruct should it diverge from its intended flight path so the chances of it falling onto populated areas was almost nil (also, most of California was on fire at the time).

SpaceX has also seen significant success in its fledgling Starlink orbital broadband communications system. Starting with a successful launch of some 60 of the microsatellites (that’s the most that a Dragon capsule can carry) back in early January, SpaceX has gone on to launch 14 more sets of them.

“With performance that far surpasses that of traditional satellite internet, and a global network unbounded by ground infrastructure limitations, Starlink will deliver high-speed broadband internet to locations where access has been unreliable, expensive, or completely unavailable,” according to the SpaceX website.

Out of the thousand Starlinks SpaceX is aiming to put into the sky by the end of the year, as of late November, the company has successfully launched more than 950 of them — in the end however, SpaceX wants more than 42,000 Starlinks covering the globe. The launches have gone so well that SpaceX is already preparing a private beta of its upcoming internet service (just $99 a month to participate!) and, thanks to recent regulatory approval, will begin offering it in Canada as well when the service officially rolls out by 2022.

The Starlink program has not been without its controversy, mind you. Shortly after the program began, astronomers began raising concerns that the fleet of reflective microsatellites could hinder the work of ground-based telescopes — especially in the numbers that Musk envisions — and could even potentially set back scientific progress in general. The warnings culminated with hundreds of scientists and researchers signing on to a workshop report out of the SatCon1 conference in August arguing that “no combination of mitigations can completely avoid the impacts of satellite trails on the science programs of the coming generation.” In response, SpaceX has begun adding solar shields to the Starlinks in an effort to reduce their reflectivity.

Looking ahead, SpaceX won’t rely on its Dragons and Falcons forever. Already, the company is working to develop a unified space launch system that can — and will — carry passengers as easily as it does cargo and satellites, the super-heavy rocket Starship. Designated as the company’s “top priority,” Starship can take people to Mars, but also serves as a quick and reusable launch system to rapidly deploy resources into low Earth orbit and the moon.

The year did not start off all that well for the Starship’s development, what with yet another prototype, the SN4, exploded on the launchpad in May. This follows a string of blow ups, collapses and other similar failures but this is rocket science so it’s supposed to be hard. The successor of the ill-fated SN4, the SN5, managed to avoid exploding during its test flight in August, it also successfully lifted 150 meters off its launchpad before shifting over to touch down at a different pad a short distance away.

The Starship’s biggest challenge to date — its first high-altitude test flight — could occur as early as this week. The company’s latest prototype, the SN8, was completed in September and originally slated to fly to a height of some 60,000 feet before safely returning to Earth. That ceiling was lowered to 50,000 feet in late September for undisclosed reasons and the test itself has since been repeatedly delayed. However in late November, following a successful static fire of its engines, Musk tweeted that a proper flight test is imminent.

No matter what happens, SpaceX’s performance in 2020 has already had a lasting impact on the aerospace industry. The European Union, for example, has already announced that it is pressing ahead with deployment of its Galileo navigation satellites, moving the timetable up 3 years to 2024, as well as investing for the first time — to the tune of €1 billion — in researching reusable rocket technology and fostering startups in the industry. Combine SpaceX’s already sizable revenue stream, $2 billion as of 2019, with its burgeoning military, scientific and commercial endeavors and it’s hard to see how the company won’t continue its market dominance in the years to come.