As the curtain finally falls on one of the worst and most tragic years in living memory, for the United States—in terms of space exploration, at least—2020 has been a banner dozen months, with launch vehicles lifting multiple payloads for multiple customers into multiple Earth orbits and despatching a pair of robotic explorers to the Sun and Mars.
SpaceX’s Falcon 9, which now holds the record for the most-flown active U.S. orbital-class booster, logged no fewer than 26 launches between January and December, whilst United Launch Alliance (ULA) completed six missions with its Atlas V and Delta IV Heavy fleet. Northrop Grumman Corp. twice flew its Antares 230+ rocket to deliver cargo to the International Space Station (ISS), whilst the Minotaur IV, Electron, Rocket-3 and LauncherOne vehicles achieved a mixture of spectacular success and dismal failure.
In terms of numbers alone, 2020’s most-flown headliner has been SpaceX, whose venerable Falcon 9 fleet completed no fewer than 26 missions to deliver hundreds of payloads into space. This figure easily surpasses SpaceX’s previous record of 21 flights achieved in 2018.
Last week, the Hawthorne, Calif.-headquartered launch services provider observed the fifth anniversary of its first successful recovery of a booster and in 2020 its 26 flights were accomplished using only 11 Falcon 9 first-stage ‘cores’, which completed 19 smooth touchdowns on the Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS) and four landings on solid ground at either Landing Zone (LZ)-1 at the newly-renamed Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Fla., or Landing Zone (LZ)-4 at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif.
Those 11 boosters set a plethora of records, with B1048 becoming the first Falcon 9 to launch five times and sister B1049 becoming the first to successfully return from a fifth flight and go on to complete sixth and seventh missions.
Three booster cores were sadly lost, with two missing their ASDS landings due to complications caused by incorrect wind data and residual cleaning fluid trapped in a sensor and a third intentionally destroyed following a high-altitude In-Flight Abort Test of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft in January.
And following several years of service in the Pacific Ocean, supporting launches out of Vandenberg, the ASDS “Just Read the Instructions” moved from the West Coast to the East Coast to join its cousin “Of Course I Still Love You” and support a drastically increased tempo of missions from Space Launch Complex (SLC)-40 at the Cape and Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC).
With this remarkable expansion of launch cadence, the records fell like ninepins: in April, the Falcon 9 eclipsed the Atlas V to become the most-flown active operational U.S. booster, in June SpaceX celebrated the passage of ten years since the flight of its first Falcon-class rocket and just last month the 100th Falcon 9 soared aloft.
All told, 2020’s missions with only 11 Falcon 9 first-stages saw three cores wrap up four flights, whilst another completed three flights and one—B1051—recorded no fewer than five launches in a single calendar year. One of these frequent-flyers, B1058, made its first foray into space on 30 May to launch Demo-2 crewmen Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken to the International Space Station (ISS) aboard Dragon Endeavour.
Their historic flight marked the long-awaited return of U.S. human spaceflight capability aboard U.S. spacecraft, launched by U.S. rockets, and from U.S. soil, since the end of the Space Shuttle Program.
Even as Hurley and Behnken orbited Earth aboard the ISS, B1058 continued an aggressive launch campaign, returning to space a second time on 20 July to deliver South Korea’s ANASIS-II military communications satellite. In so doing, it established a new launch-to-launch turnaround record for a reusable orbital-class booster from the Space Coast of just 51 days, eclipsing the 35-year record held by shuttle Atlantis’ STS-61B mission.
Fourteen of this year’s Falcon 9 flights were dedicated to delivering no fewer than 833 Starlink satellites, part of SpaceX’s $10 billion effort to emplace thousands of these flat-packed internet communications providers into low-Earth orbit by mid-decade.
Other missions saw the completion of a long-standing first-phase Commercial Resupply Services (CRS1) commitment to NASA with the 20th Dragon cargo flight to the ISS in March and the beginning of the second-phase (CRS2) contract with the launch and arrival of CRS-21 at the space station earlier this month.
In fact, CRS-20 and CRS-21 were just two of a multitude of ambitious U.S. missions which headed to the ISS, including the initial flights of Dragon Endeavour and Dragon Resilience and a total of six astronauts.
Although dominated by Starlink flights, this past year also saw the launch of the high-powered SXM-7 broadcasting satellite for SiriusXM, Argentina’s SAOCOM-1B Earth-imaging platform, the NASA-led Sentinel-6A ocean-watcher—named in honor of the former head of the agency’s Earth Science Division, Dr. Michael Freilich—a pair of Block III Global Positioning System (GPS) navigation and timing satellites for the U.S. Space Force and the highly secretive NROL-108 for the National Reconnaissance Office.
Six missions were successfully completed by Centennial, Colo.-based United Launch Alliance (ULA), whose highly-reliable fleet of Atlas V boosters supported five flawless flights and—after multiple delays caused by the predations of Mother Nature and a seemingly endless string of technical troubles—the return of the gargantuan, triple-barreled Delta IV Heavy to flight in December.
As previously outlined by AmericaSpace, ULA is gradually phasing out its Delta product-line, with the long-serving Delta II having retired in September 2018 followed by the final Delta IV Medium “single-stick” booster in August 2019.
However, the Delta IV Heavy remains operational, albeit with only four more scheduled missions ahead of it. Maintaining two families of launch vehicles originally was a U.S. Government requirement, in order for ULA to meet assured access to space policy requirements, but as the organization moves into a more competitive environment for national security launch contracts it is recognized that multiple product-lines carries the risk of reducing launch rates and increasing programmatic costs.
As such, it was expected from the outset that 2020 for ULA would be dominated by flights by its Atlas V booster, all flown from Space Launch Complex (SLC)-41 at the Cape. In February, the rarely-used “411” variant of the rocket—equipped with a single, solid-fueled strap-on rocket booster, which produced an unusual “sideways” liftoff perspective and was nicknamed “Slider” by ULA CEO Tory Bruno—delivered the European Space Agency (ESA)-led Solar Orbiter mission on a decade-long voyage to explore the Sun at closer distances and higher heliographic latitudes than ever before.
A month later, the sixth and final Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) military communications satellite was launched—and satisfactorily completed its on-orbit testing in October—with the sixth mission of the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV) mini-shuttle lofted to orbit in mid-May.
The latter, which has flown a series of increasingly longer missions since April 2010 and logged flight durations from 224 days to the current record of almost 780 days, remains in space, with not the slightest indication of when its latest clandestine mission might come to an end.
And for the Atlas V, another clandestine mission took place in November with the launch of the highly secretive NROL-101 payload for the National Reconnaissance Office. This mission also featured the first flight trial of Northrop Grumman Corp.’s upgraded GEM-63 strap-on boosters, which are being phased into use for the Atlas V and for ULA’s forthcoming Vulcan-Centaur heavylifter, due to fly next year.
If the launch of Solar Orbiter was a significant milestone for science in 2020, it was matched in equal measure by the 30 July launch of NASA’s Perseverance mission to Mars.
Destined to land a six-wheeled rover, not dissimilar in design and capability to Curiosity, in the geologically rich environs of Jezero Crater just to the north of the Martian equator in February 2021, Perseverance seeks to “sniff-out” the biosignatures of potential ancient life, collect and cache soil and rock specimens for a future sample-return mission, investigate the local geology of Jezero—thought to be a long-dried-up lake—and derive a comprehensive understanding of Mars’ dust-driven weather. The rover will also deploy Ingenuity, the first helicopter ever used on another world.
Another mission launched atop an Atlas V more than four years ago was NASA’s Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx), which performed a successful rendezvous and orbital mapping campaign at the near-Earth asteroid Bennu and in October 2020 gathered a cache of soil specimens in its Touch-and-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism (TAGSAM) sampling head.
These will be returned to Earth in 2023, bringing samples of a virtually untouched ‘carbonaceous’ remnant from the dawn of the Solar System into scientists’ eager hands.
But one ULA mission which seemed decidedly less willing to fly was the snakebitten Delta IV Heavy, laden with the classified NROL-44 payload. Rolled out to the Cape’s SLC-37B in November 2019, it enjoyed (or perhaps endured) more than a year on the launch pad, succumbing to no fewer than eight scrubbed launch attempts between August and December. These included a pair of nail-biting, last-second aborts, one of which saw one of the giant rocket’s side-mounted Common Booster Cores (CBCs) ignite and almost instantaneously shut down.
Issues with the ground pneumatics control system, pad-side regulators, a swing-arm mechanism and the predations of Mother Nature conspired with agonizing regularity against this apparently jinxed mission, before NROL-44 eventually roared smoothly into the night on 9 December, rounding out ULA’s year with six launches.
In July, Northrop Grumman successfully launched its Minotaur IV vehicle from Pad 0B at MARS, marking the first flight of this four-stage booster in almost three years. Derived from the Peacekeeper intercontinental ballistic missile, the 78-foot-tall (24-meter) Minotaur IV can emplace payloads weighing up to 3,800 pounds (1,730 kg) into low-Earth orbit and on this latest mission it lifted four payloads for the National Reconnaissance Office. Designated “NROL-129”, this was the first Minotaur IV launch dedicated to NRO objectives.
It actually represented the third NRO mission of 2020, following on the heels of a pair of flights by Rocket Labs’ two-stage Electron booster, which also scored its first NRO-sponsored mission in January. Launched from New Zealand’s North Island, the 56-foot-tall (17-meter) booster carried NROL-151 to an orbit about 370 miles (600 km) above Earth. And as Rocket Labs gradually increases its efforts to make Electron hardware reusable, the booster from the NROL-151 flight satisfactorily tested its capabilities for orientation and control and for the second time in its career survived re-entry.
Another Electron mission in June included three classified NRO payloads and just last month—in a flight appropriately nicknamed “Return to Sender” by Rocket Labs—a booster completed a soft parachute-aided oceanic splashdown and was successfully recovered for the first time. All told (and notwithstanding a failure during second-stage ascent in July), Rocket Labs closes out 2020 with six successful missions out of seven launch attempts.
Less successful have been Astra’s attempts to fly a pair of Rocket-3 vehicles from the Pacific Spaceport Complex-Alaska (PSCA) on Kodiak Island in September and December, both of which ended in failure. The small booster, whose core is powered by five Delphin engines with a combined thrust at liftoff of 32,500 pounds (14,700 kg), suffered a first-stage anomaly shortly after liftoff on its September mission and the mission was terminated by the Range Safety Officer.
This produced a spectacular explosion as the rocket plunged back to Earth, in views shared many times on YouTube. And just two weeks ago, another Rocket-3 successfully—and for the first time—flew beyond the 62-mile (100 km) “Kármán Line”, generally and internationally recognized as the edge of space. It achieved its targeted orbital altitude, but upper-stage fuel-mixture issues precluded the establishment of a stable orbit.
Further demonstrating the maxim that rocket science is unequivocably hard was the first attempt to fly Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne mission on 25 May. Flown out of California’s Mojave Air and Space Port aboard a modified Boeing 747-400, designated “Cosmic Girl”, the booster was successfully air-launched, but suffered an anomaly shortly after the ignition of its first-stage NewtonThree rocket engine.
The failure was subsequently traced to a fractured high-pressure propellant line, which prevented the proper flow of liquid oxygen into the engine’s combustion chamber. Efforts to strengthen engine components got underway in the wake of the incident, with high hopes that LauncherOne may stage a second mission in the near future.
Two orbital missions were successfully flown by Northrop Grumman’s Antares 230+ booster in February and October to deliver a pair of cargo-laden Cygnus resupply ships to the ISS. The first was named in honor of Major Robert H. Lawrence, the first African-American astronaut candidate, whilst the second recognized the first Indian-American spacefarer, veteran shuttle astronaut and Columbia’s final flight engineer, Kalpana “K.C.” Chawla.
The 133-foot-tall (40.5-meter) Antares rockets sprang away from the pretty seaside environs of Pad 0A at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) on Wallops Island, Va., delivering over 15,700 pounds (7,100 kg) of equipment, payloads and supplies to successive ISS crews.
Yet the Antares launches were only the most visible of Northrop Grumman’s contributions in 2020, for as already detailed the firm contributed an inaugural set of GEM-63 solid-fueled rockets to an Atlas V mission, successfully test-fired their larger GEM-63XL cousins for the Vulcan-Centaur program in August and delivered the first pair of five-segment Solid Rocket Boosters (SRBs) for NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) from Utah to Florida. In tomorrow’s second Year in Review article, AmericaSpace will look back at the progress of the SLS and the Artemis Program as it seeks to return humans to the Moon for the first time since the end of Project Apollo in December 1972.