2020: Four Spaceships & the End of America’s Cosmic Groundhog Day

Blue Origin’s New Shepard reusable, suborbital rocket. (Credits: Blue Origin)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

The clock struck midnight on Jan. 1 amid raucous celebrations around the world. The arrival of a new year and decade merely confirmed what had been clear for months: 2019 was not the breakthrough year for getting humans off the planet.

Neither Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin followed through on long-standing promises to fly paying passengers on suborbital joyrides. An era of commercial space tourism that seemed so close that October day in 2004 when Brian Binnie guided SpaceShipOne to a landing at the Mojave Air and Space Port quietly slipped into yet another year.

A week before that flight, Branson announced plans to use the technology to build a larger vehicle called SpaceShipTwo to fly passengers to space beginning in 2007 or 2008. Fifteen years and more than $1 billion later, the world is still waiting.

Bezo’s Blue Origin has been promising to fly people aboard its New Shepard spacecraft for the last couple of years. The closest the company got to a human flying was an instrumented dummy named Mannequin Skywalker.

Meanwhile, NASA’s much delayed objective of launching America astronauts on American rockets from American soil under the Commercial Crew Program was postponed yet again. U.S. astronauts continued to launch on Russian rockets from Kazakh soil.

An instrumented mannequin sit in the Crew Dragon spacecraft for the Demo-1 mission. (Credit: SpaceX)

Boeing and SpaceX tested their Starliner and Crew Dragon vehicles in Earth orbit, but neither provider was able to deliver astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS). Both companies are running more than three years behind schedule.

The last time the United States launched its own astronauts was aboard the space shuttle Atlantis in July 2011. That is the longest dry stretch in human orbital launches in American history, surpassing the nearly six years between the last Apollo flight in July 1975 and the maiden flight of the Columbia shuttle in April 1981.

There is much to be said for taking the time to get it right. Fatal accidents have grounded human spaceflight for years. The most recent example was the crash of SpaceShipTwo VSS Enterprise in 2014. Previous to that was the loss of Columbia in 2003.

Still, watching U.S. human spaceflight’s slow progress has been like a twisted version of the movie “Groundhog Day.” Instead of reliving the same day over and over again as Bill Murray did, we listen to the same people make the same promises they don’t keep as the days and years slide by.

But…and I know I’ve written this before…that cycle could be ending soon. The years of delays have set up 2020 as the Year of the Four Spaceships during which three vehicles — New Shepard, Crew Dragon and Starliner — could carry people for the first time and a fourth — SpaceShipTwo — could enter commercial service.

That many crewed systems flying in a single year has never happened in the 59 years since Yuri Gagarin made the first spaceflight. It could make for a very exciting year. And a dangerous one.

Suborbital Spaceflight

Chief Astronaut Trainer Beth Moses floats in the cabin as David Mackay and Michael “Sooch” Masucci pilot VSS. Unity. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

Last year ended with suborbital space tourism right where it has been for the last decade: six to 12 months away. The much hyped democratization of space — spaceflight of the billionaires, by the billionaires, and for the billionaires — did not lift off from the Earth.

Both Branson and Bezos made strides during 2019 toward charging their fellow one percenters hundreds of thousands of dollars to float freely for a handful of precious minutes on the edge of space.

On Feb. 21, Virgin’s SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity made its second suborbital flight above 50 miles from the Mojave Air and Space Port. The vehicle reached its highest speed and altitude — Mach 3.04 and 295,007 ft — to date.

There was a third person aboard for only the second time in SpaceShipTwo’s flight test program. Chief Astronaut Trainer Beth Moses joined Chief Pilot Dave Mackay and co-pilot Michael “Sooch” Masucci to evaluate the passenger experience in the cabin.

Chief Pilot David Mackay celebrates a successful flight with champagne as Beth Moses looks on. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

Mackay became the first Scottish-born native to fly in space. And Moses became the first woman to fly on a commercial spacecraft. The three crew members were later presented with commercial astronaut wings by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

VSS Unity was withdrawn from flight tests for the rest of the year so engineers could fit out the cabin with four seats for passengers. Virgin Galactic plans to transport SpaceShipTwo to Spaceport America in New Mexico to complete flight tests begun in Mojave.

WhiteKnightTwo on approach to Mojave on Jan. 31, 2020. (Credit: Kenneth Brown)

If testing in New Mexico goes well, the plan is to fly Virgin Chairman Richard Branson on the first commercial flight from Spaceport America in time for his 70th birthday on July 18.

Blue Origin launched its New Shepard suborbital vehicle three times from Corn Ranch in West Texas last year. The program flew its 100th payload in December.

In September, Blue Origin CEO Bob Smith said the company planned two more automated flight tests before it would begin to fly test subjects aboard. Tickets are expected to cost hundreds of thousands of dollars once they go on sale, Smith added.

New Shepard launch (Credit: Blue Origin webcast)

The first of the remaining two flight tests was conducted on Dec. 11. Blue Origin has not revealed its flight test schedule for 2020.

All three flights in 2019 were conducted with the third capsule in the New Shepard series. A fourth spacecraft has been built specifically to carry passengers.

Smith said the company is being very thorough and safety conscious as it moved toward passenger flights. The deliberate pace is in step with its Gradatim Ferociter (“step by step, ferociously”) motto.

Mannequin Skywalker — an instrumented test dummy — flew aboard the New Shepard capsule. (Credit: Blue Origin)

The Rivalry

Although New Shepard has yet to fly passengers, Bezos has said the company has bragging rights in flying to space. New Shepard has soared above 100 km (62.1 mile) altitude known as the Karman line that is widely accepted internationally as the boundary of space. SpaceShipTwo has not reached that altitude.

“We’ve always had as our mission that we wanted to fly above the Karman Line, because we didn’t want there to be any asterisks next to your name about whether you’re an astronaut or not. That’s something they’re going to have to address, in my opinion,” Bezos said last February.

Virgin Galactic rejects that argument. The company cites the American definition of space beginning at 50 miles (80.4 km), which SpaceShipTwo has exceeded twice. The FAA has adopted this standard for awarding wings to SpaceShipTwo’s crews.

Officially, there’s no race between the Branson and Bezos to fly the first paying space tourists. Executives at both companies say they will fly passengers when they’re ready, when they feel it is safe to do so. Behind the scenes, there are probably a lot of people on both sides who wouldn’t mind being first.

Casting a Long Shadow

How much that will matter is unclear. Even as Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin flew last year, their accomplishments were increasingly overshadowed by the orbital flights conducted by Boeing and SpaceX. Those missions attracted far more public and press attention, as will the crewed flight tests to ISS scheduled this year.

Richard Branson with the pilots of SpaceShipTwo. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

Going suborbital takes only about three percent of the energy that is required to place a satellite into orbit. The difference is notable in the size and power of the rockets involved, and in the majesty of the launches. That makes orbital launches a lot more exciting to watch.

To make a terrestrial comparison, flying suborbital is akin to boarding a tour boat in San Francisco. The boat will take up to the Golden Gate Bridge, around Alcatraz Island and past other noteworthy sites. Two hours later, you’re right back on the same dock where you started.

Crew Dragon and Starliner will be carrying astronauts and cargo to the space station. In that, they are much more like the oil tankers and container ships that sail through the Golden Gate every day. They go places.

Being upstaged by orbital launches is a probably bigger problem for Branson than for Bezos. The media coverage generated by Virgin Galactic has far exceeded the company’s accomplishments to date. If Virgin could launch people into space on hype alone, it would have gotten them to Pluto by now.

Bezos’ Blue Origin is the desert tortoise of commercial spaceflight — slow and steady, step by step with long periods of media hibernation between flights that leave everyone puzzled about what they’re actually doing in West Texas. Like the fictional talking horse, Mr. Ed, Blue never speaks unless it has something to say.

That could be changing, however. Bezos has hired Starbucks and Boeing vice president Linda Mills as Blue Origins’ first head of communications. One doesn’t hire someone of that caliber to continue a low-key media strategy.

Orbital Spaceflight Moves Forward

NASA ended 2019 with its astronauts still hitching rides aboard Russian Soyuz spacecraft. The space agency is negotiating with those same Russians to purchase yet another seat so NASA can maintain an American presence on the space station.

An instrumented mannequin sit in the Crew Dragon spacecraft for the Demo-1 mission. (Credit: SpaceX)

The number of U.S. astronauts on the space station will fall to one in April and to zero starting in October without the additional Soyuz seat. NASA is also working on ways to accelerate the Crew Dragon and Starliner schedules and lengthen the flight tests being flown to station to boost the American presence there.

There was significant progress in 2019. On March 2, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launched a Crew Dragon with an instrumented mannequin to a successful automated docking with the space station. Six days after launch, the spacecraft was bobbing in the Atlantic Ocean after a safe splashdown.

The successful flight raised hopes for a crewed flight test in 2019. Six weeks later, those hopes were blown sky high. Literally.

On April 20, the same capsule suddenly exploded on a test stand in Florida as it was being prepared for an in-flight abort test that was one of the last major milestones before a crewed flight.

The accident was caused by a small amount of dinitrogen tetroxide leaking into a helium line that was used to pressurize the propellant tanks. The resulting modifications pushed the in-flight abort test into January 2020 and delayed crewed missions.

Crew Dragon abort static test (Credit: NASA)

The successful abort test has SpaceX and NASA projecting a flight test with astronauts taking place in the second quarter of the year. SpaceX has said the spacecraft will be capable of a long-term stay at ISS instead of the shorter mission originally planned. Just how long is unclear.

NASA has not announced whether it will authorize a longer mission. Nor is it clear when the first Crew Dragon operational flight will be conducted.

NASA is attempting to accelerate the schedule by simultaneously conducting the certification of Crew Dragon and the flight readiness review that are required before that operational mission. NASA originally planned to perform those steps sequentially.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) raised concerns about the wisdom of conducting them at the same time in a recent report. The government watchdog also said both SpaceX and Boeing have a number of issues to close out that could further delay flights. (See story)

Starliner OFT-1 capsule after landing at White Sands Missile Range. (Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls)

Boeing’s Starliner program also made progress last year despite delays and failures. In November, a pad abort test at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico was successful despite one of the three parachutes failing to open during descent.

The failure was caused by an incorrectly inserted pin. The two functioning parachutes and airbags brought the capsule down safely. The anomaly was not considered serious enough to delay the automated flight test scheduled for the following month.

The Starliner’s orbital flight suffered a more serious anomaly. On Dec. 20, the Atlas V booster placed the spacecraft on a suborbital trajectory as planned. Starliner’s on-board engine was then to fire to place the spacecraft into orbit and send it to a docking with ISS.

But, that never happened due to a software timing error. Starliner’s smaller thrusters fired to get the vehicle into a low orbit, but the docking was canceled. After two days in space, Starliner made a successful landing at White Sands with all three parachutes inflated.

NASA astronaut Nicole Mann poses for a photograph as she exits the Boeing Mockup Trainer at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. (Credit: NASA)

Boeing and NASA are reviewing the flight data and investigating the timing anomaly. The space agency has not decided whether it will require the company to re-fly the mission before putting crew aboard Starliner. Boeing has taken a $410 million charge against earnings just in case.

Like SpaceX, Boeing has said that its crewed flight test vehicle could stay docked to the space station longer than originally planned in order to increase the number of astronauts there. It’s not clear how long an extended mission would last.

NASA also plans to conduct vehicle certification and the flight readiness review simultaneously for Starliner as it is doing for SpaceX’s Crew Dragon.

A Groundhog’s Tale

Punxsutawney Phil on February 2, 2018. (By Chris Flook – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=80320762)

On Sunday, America’s most famous marmot weather prognosticator, Punxsutawney Phil, did not see his shadow. According to legend, that means an early spring.

Whether this comes to pass remains to be seen. As much as we love the little fur ball, he’s only been right 40 percent of the time over the past decade. We would probably have better luck flipping a coin.

Still, Phil has a better record than those who have predicted when commercial flights to ISS and suborbital space will begin. Going 0 for the 2010’s does little to inspire confidence.

But, we now have a new year, a new decade and — as Princess Leia said — a new hope. Three new space vehicles could fly with crews this year. Another could enter commercial service.

More people could experience spaceflight in 2020 than in any previous year. We will see a broader range of people flying to space, chosen not for their abilities but by the size of their bank accounts. That won’t be the democratization of space, exactly. But, it will interesting.

Hidden Risks

This year will be an exciting one for human spaceflight. And, make no mistake, it would be risky. Human spaceflight is inherently dangerous. These are vehicles without a lot of flight history. We should not assume all will go well.

NASA has not had the same level of involvement in developing Crew Dragon and Starliner as it did with previous crewed spacecraft. The level of insight the agency has into the performance of the vehicles and their systems is not as high as it has been in the past.

Some observers don’t see this as a problem. NASA is overly bureaucratic, stuck in its ways, and has no monopoly on wisdom. Just ask the families of the 17 astronauts who have died during flights or on the ground. Critics believe the space agency needs to be willing to take greater risks in order to advance the nation’s expansion into space.

But, safety experts fear that serious problems with the vehicles could be overlooked. NASA has enormous experience in human spaceflight; only Russia can claim more. It is true the American space agency has suffered fatal accidents. But, 164 missions were launched into space with their crews returning safely to Earth.

The disdain for NASA, its strict safety rules and government in general can be seen in the regulations covering commercial suborbital spaceflight that Congress passed in 2004 during the heady days that followed the successful flights of SpaceShipOne.

Oversight was kept with a FAA that had little experience with human spaceflight. The agency’s authority was strictly limited. The nascent commercial spaceflight industry was given a “learning period” during which it could fly passengers and experiment with different designs and processes without burdensome government safety regulations.

Today, there are no mandatory safety regulations to protect passengers and crews on New Shepard and SpaceShipTwo launches. The FAA has no legal mandate to prevent people from dying on these flights. Its main statutory responsibility is to protect people and property on the ground when launches go awry.

This situation will not change until there is an accident or close call serious enough that the FAA can justifying beginning to write regulations. The loss of VSS Enterprise with the death of co-pilot Mike Alsbury in 2014 did not trigger the end of the learning period.

Anyone who climbs aboard one of these vehicles is flying at his or her own risk. They must sign a liability waiver that limits their right to sue except in cases of gross negligence or intentional harm.

Watching From the Ground

The return of orbital human spaceflight to U.S. soil will bring levels of excitement and anxiety that have been largely missing from American launches since the space shuttle retired in 2011.

Durng that period, I’ve seen SpaceShipTwo powered flights over the Mojave and satellite launches from Vandenberg and NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. The difference is like night and day.

Watching SpaceShipTwo drop from its mother ship and light its engine is exciting but nerve wrecking. There are people up there whose lives are at stake flying an experimental system. And I have seen what happens when one of those flights goes awry.

A satellite mission is a machine launching a machine. Both can be easily replaced. Human beings, however, are unique. Once they’re gone, they’re gone. For the people they leave behind, the excruciating pain of their loss can last a lifetime.

As the Year of the Four Spaceships unfolds, we must temper our excitement and hopes with caution. We can pray for the best, but must be prepared for any outcome.