The company has also improved its launch vehicle recovery methods during the year. In July, SpaceX crews managed to take out both halves of the nose cone using a large net on top of a salvage ship – a technique similar to what Rocket Lab recently demonstrated with its Electron recovery system. Those nose cone fairings add up to $ 6 million, so retrieving them unscathed before hitting the ocean surface at any noticeable speed is paramount.
Of course, before SpaceX could officially switch from its older cargo capsules, the company had to prove that the variants of the Dragon 2 crew capsule were safe and sturdy enough to carry people to the ISS and back. As such, SpaceX successfully demonstrated its Dragon crew capsule escape system in mid-January. Taking off from Launch Complex 39A at Kennedy Space Center, the unscrewed Falcon 9 missile flew just 90 seconds before the abort signal was activated, forcibly detaching the crew capsule from the rest of the missile. The capsule took off at 400 mph before deploying its parachutes and landing safely in the Atlantic Ocean for recovery.
SpaceX’s next challenge came in June with the delicate launch of the DEMO-2 mission – the first time the crew capsule carried real humans. After a scrubbed launch attempt, astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley have successfully taken off from Launch Complex 39A, which was the first example of US astronauts launching from US soil since the shuttle era ended in 2011.
“Today begins a new era in manned space flight as we have once again launched US astronauts on US rockets from US soil en route to the International Space Station, our national orbiting laboratory,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a statement. press release of June. “I thank and congratulate Bob Behnken, Doug Hurley and the SpaceX and NASA teams on this important 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 in our journey to extend human exploration to the Moon and Mars. “
19 hours after launch, the pair of astronauts docked and entered the ISS, their temporary home from the following month, until they climbed back into the Dragon crew capsule, detached from the ISS, and jumped back to the surface with a dramatic ocean landing.
SpaceX has been in the business for nearly two decades, and has spent that time diligently refining the design and construction of its rockets and 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 to be able to transport people to and from the International Space Station as part of the Commercial Crew Program ”, according to a release.
“I am extremely proud to say that we regularly return manned space launches to US soil with a US rocket and spacecraft,” said Bridenstine. “This certification milestone is an incredible achievement by NASA and SpaceX that underscores the progress we can make by partnering with the commercial industry.”
As if that wasn’t enough to get SpaceX CEO Elon Musk anything to go, less than a week later, the CREW-1 mission was successfully launched from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida with not two but a full complement of four astronauts on board. board. NASA astronauts Mike Hopkins, Victor Glover, Shannon Walker and JAXA astronaut Soichi Noguchi arrived on the ISS on November 16, ahead of a six-month period at the station. Coincidentally, Victor Glover is the first black astronaut to reside aboard the ISS for a six-month period since then. In the 22 years that the ISS has orbited the Earth, black astronauts have never stayed on board for more than a few days. The CREW-1 mission is just the beginning. SpaceX has plans for two more manned launches in 2021 and again in 2022.
And it’s not just NASA where SpaceX has found a home 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 will run through 2024 and the first launch, with a price tag of a whopping $ 316 million, will take place in 2022. Additionally, in November, Space Force handed SpaceX an additional $ 29.5 million for a one-year contract offering “early integration studies. and fleet surveillance for non-national security space missions, ”said the award announcement.
“This is a groundbreaking day, culminating in years of strategic planning and efforts from the Department of the Air Force, NRO and our partners in the launch services industry,” said Dr. William Roper, Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics in an August statement. “By maintaining a competitive entry-level market and serving both government and commercial customers, we encourage continuous innovation in guaranteed access to space. Today’s awards mark a new era of launch into space, which will finally see the Ministry replace Russia’s RD-180 engines. “
Additionally, SpaceX has signed up to put a new generation of GPS satellites into orbit as part of the SpaceForce deal. Built by Lockheed Martin, the GPS III Space Vehicle has three times better accuracy and up to eight times better anti-interference capabilities. In addition, it will remain in orbit for 15 years – 25 percent longer than the current generation of satellites.
SpaceX’s search 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 put the Army / Navy / Air Force Satellite Information System 2 (ANASIS-II), a secure communications satellite for South Korea’s Defense Development Agency, into geosynchronous orbit.
On August 30, another Falcon 9 with the SAOCOM 1B, an Argentine Earth observation satellite used to provide radar data to emergency responders, was launched from Cape Canaveral. Interestingly, the missile took a southern route that would lead it to Cuba, rather than east, as virtually every other launch from that location has taken place since 1969. It is rare for launches in a polar orbit like this one to take off from the east coast. Usually they fly out of Vandenberg AFB in California, so that way they don’t have to fly over island countries that we almost started a nuclear war with. However, SpaceX managed to find a special air force exemption thanks to the Falcon 9’s ability to automatically self-destruct if it deviates from its intended flight path, so that the chances of it falling on populated areas were close to zero (also the largest part of California on fire at that time).
SpaceX has also achieved significant success in its fledgling Starlink orbital broadband communications system. Starting with a successful launch of about 60 of the microsatellites (that’s the most a Dragon capsule can carry) in early January, SpaceX launched 14 more sets of them.
“With performance far beyond traditional satellite internet, and a global network unconstrained by ground infrastructure constraints, Starlink will provide high-speed broadband internet in locations where access was unreliable, expensive, or completely unavailable,” said the SpaceX website. .
Of the 1,000 Starlinks that SpaceX plans to put on the air by the end of the year, the company successfully launched more than 950 by the end of November – ultimately, however, SpaceX wants more than 42,000 Starlinks covering the entire world. . 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 approvals, it will also launch in Canada. when the service is officially rolled out. by 2022.
The Starlink program has not been without controversy. Shortly after the program began, astronomers began voicing concerns that the fleet of reflective microsatellites could impede the work of ground-based telescopes – especially in the numbers Musk envisions – and possibly even advance scientific progress in general. can slow down. The warnings culminated with hundreds of scientists and researchers taking part in a workshop report from the SatCon1 conference in August, arguing that “no combination of mitigating measures can completely avoid the impact of satellite trails on the science programs of the next generation.” In response, SpaceX has started adding sun shades to the Starlinks in an effort to reduce their reflectivity.
Looking ahead, SpaceX won’t be relying on its dragons and falcons forever. The company is already developing a unified space launch system that can and will carry passengers as easily as cargo and satellites, the super-heavy rocket Starship. Designated as the company’s “top priority”, Starship can take humans to Mars, but it also serves as a fast and reusable launch system to quickly deploy resources in low Earth and Moon orbit.
The year did not start very well for the development of the Starship, which exploded on the launch pad in May with yet another prototype, the SN4. This follows a series of eruptions, collapses, and other similar failures, but this one is rocket science, so it should be tough. The successor to the ill-fated SN4, the SN5, managed to avoid exploding during its test flight in August, it was also successfully lifted 150 meters from its launch pad before transitioning to land another path a short distance away.
Good Starship SN8 static fire! Aim for the first flight of 15 km / ~ 50 km altitude next week. The goal is to test 3 engine rises, body flaps, transition from main to main tanks and landing flap.
– Elon Musk (@elonmusk) November 24, 2020
The Starship’s biggest challenge yet – its first high-altitude test flight – could take place as early as this week. The company’s newest prototype, the SN8, was completed in September and was originally scheduled to fly to an altitude of about 60,000 feet before returning safely to Earth. That ceiling was lowered to 15,000 feet in late September for unknown reasons, and the test itself has since been repeatedly delayed. But at the end of November, after a successful static fire of its engines, Musk tweeted that a good flight test is imminent.
Whatever happens, SpaceX’s performance in 2020 has already had a lasting impact on the aerospace industry. For example, the European Union has already announced that it will continue to roll out its Galileo navigation satellites, push back the timetable by three years to 2024, and invest for the first time – to the tune of € 1 billion – in research into reusable rocket technology and stimulating startups in the industry. Combine SpaceX’s already significant 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.