The Year of the Four Spaceships: A Progress Report

The Expedition 63 crew welcomes Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to the International Space Station. (Credits: NASA / Bill Stafford)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Back in February, I went out on a limb and predicted that 2020 could be the Year of the Four Spaceships, with SpaceX, Boeing, Blue Origin, and Virgin Galactic and reaching major milestones in human spaceflight. (See 2020: Four Spaceships & the End of America’s Cosmic Groundhog Day)

With nearly half the year over, I thought it would be a good time to review the companies’ progress toward those milestones.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying the company’s Crew Dragon spacecraft is launched from Launch Complex 39A on NASA’s SpaceX Demo-2 mission to the International Space Station with NASA astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley aboard, Saturday, May 30, 2020, at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. (Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls & Joel Kowsky)

SpaceX

2020 Objectives: fly astronauts aboard Crew Dragon on the Demo-2 flight test to the International Space Station (ISS) and return them safely to Earth; begin commercial flights following the successful test.

Status: so far so good

SpaceX broke a nearly nine-year drought of crewed orbital launches from U.S. soil by launching astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to the space station on May 30.

NASA plans to return the astronauts to Earth in August. If there are no serious anomalies to correct, a new Crew Dragon will carry three Americans and one Japanese astronaut to ISS on SpaceX’s first commercial mission. The launch is currently scheduled for Aug. 30.

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

Boeing

2020 Objectives: conduct a flight test of the Starliner crew vehicle to the space station with astronauts aboard; begin commercial flights to ISS.

Status: ain’t gonna happen

The uncrewed Starliner flight test last December failed to reach the space station and suffering software and communications failures that could have destroyed it on two occasions.

Boeing will fly the mission again later this year at a cost to the company of more than $400 million. The flight is currently penciled in for November, with a second test with astronauts aboard set for spring 2021 should no serious anomalies be discovered.

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

Blue Origin

2020 Objective: complete New Shepard uncrewed flight test program; fly people aboard for the first time.

Status: we’ll believe it when we see it

After launching New Shepard three times from its west Texas facility in 2019, Blue Origin ended yet another year without following through on its plan to fly people aboard the automated rocket and capsule system.

The care and attention Jeff Bezos’ rocket company has committed to getting it right and flying safely is commendable. A single fatal accident could end Blue Origin’s human spaceflight program for good.

But, after 12 successful flight tests, even the company’s biggest fans were starting to wonder whether Blue Origin should change its Latin motto from Gradatim Ferociter (Step by Step, Ferociously) to Gradatim Denique (Step by Step, Eventually).

Company officials say several more flight tests will be conducted before placing test subjects aboard. They are hoping to achieve that by the end of this year.

Blue Origin’s schedule has been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic as several workers tested positive for the virus. Other employees pushed back against plans to fly from company headquarters in Washington State to Texas for a New Shepard flight test planned for April 10 over fears of becoming infected.

The launch was not conducted. Blue Origin has not provided an update on its schedule for future New Shepard flights.

The curvature of the Earth from SpaceShipTwo. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

Virgin Galactic

2020 Objectives: complete VSS Unity‘s flight test program; begin suborbital tourism from Spaceport America in New Mexico with Richard Branson aboard the first commercial launch by mid-year.

Status: nope

On Feb. 22, 2019, VSS Unity touched down at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California after its second flight above 50 miles (80.4 km) in two months.

The path seemed clear, after more than 14 years of effort, for Virgin Galactic to complete testing of SpaceShipTwo and begin flying passengers on suborbital joy rides for $250,000 a pop by the end of 2019.

Sixteen months later, Virgin Galactic hasn’t flown a single powered flight. Plans to fly Branson on the first commercial flight in time for his 70th birthday on July 18 have gone by the boards. It’s not even clear if commercial service will begin by the end of 2020.

After its second suborbital flight, VSS Unity was placed in the hangar at Mojave so its passenger cabin could be outfitted with four seats and the vehicle could be improved for frequent reuse.

Those modifications took a long time. It wasn’t until February 2020 that the WhiteKnightTwo mother ship VMS Eve relocated VSS Unity from Mojave to Spaceport America in New Mexico.

A month later, New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham ordered all non-essential businesses to close in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Work on the SpaceShipTwo program largely stopped in New Mexico and California, which was placed under a similar order.

On May 1, VSS Unity conducted its first glide flight at Spaceport America. The test was designed to familiarize pilots with flying from the southern New Mexico facility.

Virgin Galactic officials have said the space plane will perform one or two additional glide flights before it resumes powered flight tests. Employees will fill the four seats in the passenger cabin to test the tourism experience before Branson flies on the first commercial launch.

Company officials have declined to predict when commercial service will begin.

Summing Up

With the year nearly half over, it looks very likely SpaceX will accomplish its human spaceflight goals. Boeing is out of the picture. And it is anyone’s guess as to what Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin will accomplish this year.

My batting average on predicting human spaceflight is likely to range from .250 to .750 by the time the clock strikes midnight on the year 2020. Even that lowest figure would be an improvement over my past predictions for U.S. human spaceflight.

And, for the record, I will not be making any predictions about when NASA’ Orion spacecraft will fly. That is the worst bet in space exploration.