By Dale Skran
Given how generally terrible 2020 has been for most of us suffering under the yoke of the pandemic, it seems impolite to point out that SpaceX has somehow struggled through to pull off what can only be described as its best year ever. Early in 2020 there was talk of shutting down Commercial Crew testing and evacuating the International Space Station. Fortunately, NASA found the courage to continue, and has been richly rewarded with success from SpaceX.
Just briefly listing what is almost certainly an incomplete list of SpaceX 2020 achievements:
- January 19: Successful Dragon 2 in-flight abort test.
- March 6: Final flight of the Commercial Resupply series to the ISS/SpX-20.
- May 30: First crewed Dragon 2 test flight to the ISS (crew of two).
- November 11: First operational crewed Dragon 2 flight to the ISS (crew of four).
- December 6: First Dragon 2 cargo flight under Commercial Resupply Services 2 contract to the ISS/SpX-21. This flight was especially notable since it lofted Nanorack’s Bishop airlock to the ISS.
- 26 total successful Falcon 9 flights.
- 25 total successful orbital Falcon 9 flights, a new record for SpaceX.
- 14 successful Starlink launches, lofting 833 satellites in 2020. Note that three of the launches were rideshares which only launched 58, 57, and 58 Starlinks instead of the normal 60 per Falcon 9. To date, 955 Starlinks have been launched, including those in 2019, and of those 901 remain in orbit, making SpaceX the world’s largest satellite operator.
- Three commercial launches, including ANASIS-II, SAOCOM 1B, and SiriusXM SXM-7.
- Three launches for the U.S. military, including GPS III-3, GPS III-4, and NROL-108.
- One scientific launch for NASA: Sentinel-6 Michael Freilich.
- Flew two different Falcon 9 first stages for the 7th time.
- Landed 23 total Falcon 9 first stages successfully.
For comparison, in 2020 ULA launched six payloads. An obvious criticism of SpaceX is that most of their launches were for an internal customer, Starlink. However, the SpaceX commercial/military total alone equals the ULA launch total of six. Add to this six for NASA and 14 Starlinks, totaling 26, and we can see why it is fair to say SpaceX is the leading U.S. launch company. The 26 SpaceX launches total more than Russia (16), Europe (5), and Japan (4) combined! Only China at 39 launches bested SpaceX.
A single disappointing area appears for SpaceX in 2020: No launches of the Falcon Heavy, a deficiency that should be corrected in 2021.
This constitutes a remarkable record that any company could be proud of:
- Leading U.S. launch company by a large margin.
- Restored U.S. based access to the ISS for astronauts.
- Established itself as the operator of the world’s largest satellite network, which was offering beta service by the end of the year.
- Raised between $2 billion and $2.4 billion in equity funding.
SpaceX won some key contracts as well:
- 40% of the National Security Space Launch services 2022-2027 contract, shared with ULA getting 60%. The initial flight under this contract included a big chunk of money to construct a larger Falcon Heavy fairing and set up vertical loading for the Falcon rockets, the combination of which promises to expand the range of flight contracts SpaceX could potentially win.
- Contract with NASA to fly a Dragon XL to bring supplies to the lunar Gateway commercially.
- $885 million of federal subsidies to provide broadband to rural customers over a period of years using the Starlink network.
SpaceX also was named the winner by the Space Development Agency of a $149 million contract to build four satellites to detect ballistic and hypersonic missiles. This contract win is being disputed by the losers, but it indicates the SpaceX is encroaching into the traditional territory of the “aerospace majors.”
But that’s not all folks! SpaceX has been conducting an intensive development and testing effort in Boca Chica, Texas to bring to reality the Starship/SuperHeavy, a fully-reusable Saturn V class rocket of a totally new design based on the methane-lox Raptor engine. Major tests in 2020 included:
- August 4: 150 m hop by Starship SN5 (looks like a flying grain silo).
- September 3: 150 m hop by Starship SN6 (another flying grain silo).
- December 9: Nominal 12.5 km flight lasting 6 minutes 42 seconds by Starship SN8.
- This was a more complete Starship with functioning “aero surfaces” and three Raptor engines.
- The flight was mostly a success, but the engines lost pressure while landing, resulting in a RUD – Rapid Unscheduled Disassembly.
There is just no getting around it – SpaceX had a very good 2020, almost certainly the best ever for the company. 2021 holds out the potential to be even better, featuring:
- A new record number of total launches.
- The 10th flight of a Falcon 9 first stage.
- Two Falcon Heavy flights for the U.S. Space Force.
- NASA’s DART asteroid intercept test mission on a Falcon 9.
- Two crews to the ISS.
- Intuitive Machines first flight to the Moon.
- And even potentially two fully commercial crewed flights to the ISS.
- Starlink reaching initial operating capability and opening for general service.
But exciting as all of that is going to be, it’s the 2021 Starship/SuperHeavy milestones that I’ll be paying the most attention to:
- The prospective flight of Starship SN9 in January 2021, with the potential to “stick the landing.”
- A Starship flight later in 2021 with a full heat shield to a much higher altitude than that reached by SN8.
- Starship flights that test the vacuum version of the Raptor engine.
- The first hops of the “SuperHeavy” first stage which is currently being assembled at Boca Chica.
I don’t expect to see a full up orbital Starship/SuperHeavy flight in 2021, but it would not surprise me if as the year closed the full vehicle was being stacked on the launch pad the first time. We can expect more fiery “landings” at Boca Chica during 2021, but fortune favors the bold, and SpaceX has the boldest rocket team of our time.
Given the impetus SpaceX brings forward from 2020 to 2021, probably the greatest potential for delay lies in a changing regulatory environment. Viasat is attempting to slow down Starlink via regulatory intervention, and the possibility exists that the FAA might require a new environmental impact statement to launch Starship/SuperHeavy at Boca Chica, potentially resulting in years of delay. SpaceX has proved nimble at overcoming obstacles in the past, and is even now hiring workers to build an off-shore platform to launch Starship/SuperHeavy, but we will have to wait and see.
Copyright 2020 Dale Skran
Left: Starship SN8 just after launch (SpaceX).
Top right: Starship SN after the high-altitute flip maneuver (SpaceX).
Bottom right: Crew-1 Commander Mike Hopkins (seen from the rear on the left) and Pilot Victor Glover (right) watch their screens as the Crew Dragon Resilience approaches the International Space Station just before docking on Nov. 16, 2020 (NASA).