by Douglas Messier
The United States reclaimed the top spot in launches from China last year as NASA astronauts flew into orbit from American soil for the first time in nearly nine years, SpaceX deployed the world’s first satellite mega-constellation with reused rockets, and two new launchers debuted with less than stellar results.
American companies conducted 44 launches in 2020, with 40 successes and four failures. Bryce Tech reports that U.S. companies accounted for 32 of the 41 commercial launches conducted last year. The majority of those flights were conducted by SpaceX, which launched 25 orbital missions.
China came in second with a record of 35 successful launches and four failures. The 39 launch attempts tied that nation’s previous record for flights during a calendar year.
Let’s take a closer look at what U.S. companies achieved last year.
U.S. LAUNCH PROVIDERS
2020 Launch Record: 40-4
2019 Launch Record: 27-0
Launch Vehicles: Antares, Atlas V, Delta IV-Heavy, Electron, Falcon 9, LauncherOne, Minotaur IV, Rocket 3
Launch Sites: Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Fla.; Kennedy Space Center, Fla.; Mahia Peninsula, New Zealand; Mojave Air and Space Port, Calif.; Pacific Spaceport Complex — Alaska; Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif.; Wallops Flight Facility, Va.
SpaceX led all American providers with 25 successful orbital launches, four more than the previous record for Elon Musk’s company. SpaceX also launched a Falcon 9 booster on a suborbital flight in a test of the Crew Dragon in-flight abort system.
U.S. Orbital Launches, 2020
|United Launch Alliance (ULA)||Atlas V (5), Delta IV Heavy (1)||6||0||6|
|Northrop Grumman||Antares (2), Minotaur IV (1)||3||0||3|
|Astra Space||Rocket 3.1, 3.2||0||2||2|
Rocket Lab conducted seven launches, one more than in 2019. The company’s attempt to ramp up its launch rate to a monthly cadence was disrupted by the failure of an Electron booster in July.
United Launch Alliance (ULA) launched six times, with five flights of the Atlas V rocket and one of the Delta IV Heavy booster. Northrop Grumman’s three launches included two Cygnus resupply ships to ISS aboard Antares boosters and a military mission flown on a Minotaur IV rocket.
Astra Space launched its low-cost Rocket 3.1 and 3.2 boosters from Alaska. The first booster failed shortly after liftoff, with the second reaching space but falling short of orbit. Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne failed seconds after engine ignition during its maiden flight.
2020 Launch Record: 25-0
2019 Launch Record: 13-0
Launch Vehicle: Falcon 9
Launch Sites: Cape Canaveral Space Force Base, Fla.; Kennedy Space Center, Fla.; Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif.
On May 30, SpaceX broke a nearly nine-year gap in crewed orbital launches from U.S. soil when the company’s Falcon 9 rocket sent NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to the International Space Station (ISS) aboard a Crew Dragon spacecraft.
The Demo-2 mission was the first time astronauts had flown aboard a Crew Dragon. The successful launch was the beginning of the end of NASA’s dependence on Russian Soyuz spacecraft. The space agency spent billions of dollars purchasing seats on the Russian transports after the retirement of the space shuttle in July 2011.
Behnken and Hurley successfully splashed down off the coast of Florida on Aug. 2 after nearly 64 days in space. The flight marked SpaceX’s final development milestone under NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. The way was paved for the space agency to certify the spacecraft to begin carrying astronauts to the station on a commercial basis.
On Nov. 15, SpaceX launched the first operational Crew Dragon mission. NASA astronauts Mike Hopkins, Shannon Walker and Victor Glover were joined by Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi for a six-month stay on the station.
The Crew-1 mission raised the permanent number of astronauts on ISS from six to seven. The extra crew member doubled the amount of time devoted to science experiments and technology demonstrations on the station.
SpaceX also launched two Dragon resupply ships to the station last year. The second mission in December featured the first upgraded freighter based on the larger Crew Dragon design.
Bryce Tech reports that small satellites made up 1,202 or 94 percent of the 1,282 spacecraft launched in 2020. SpaceX launched 937 small satellites, including 833 Starlink spacecraft designed to provide global broadband services around the world. Fourteen of the company’s 25 orbital launches were devoted to deploying the Starlink constellation.
SpaceX has received approval from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to launch nearly 12,000 Starlink satellites. The company has also applied for approval to launch an additional 30,000 satellites as part of the constellation.
SpaceX notched its 100th successful launch in October, a figure that includes two flights of its smaller, decommissioned Falcon 1 booster.
SpaceX continued to advance the reuse of its Falcon 9 first stages. Two boosters flew for a record seven times each, while others flew between two and five times. The company flew only five first stages last year. Two of the boosters were for the Crew Dragon flights for NASA. The other three new boosters carried NASA and Department of Defense payloads.
In September, SpaceX reach an agreement with the military’s Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC) to begin flying defense payloads using previously flown first-stage boosters.
SpaceX landed 23 of the 25 Falcon first stages the company launched on orbital flights last year. On Dec. 19, SpaceX notched its 70th successful first stage booster landing.
Nineteen first stages landed on the “Of Course I Still Love You” and “Just Read the Instructions” offshore drone ships. Three others first stages touched down at Landing Zone One at the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida. One landed at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
SpaceX also continued to make progress in reusing payload fairing halves. Seven fairing halves were used on two missions, while four halves were launched for the third time. SpaceX has said a fairing costs $6 million to manufacture.
SpaceX won a multi-billion dollar U.S. Air Force contract to launch defense payloads for a five year period beginning in 2022. The company will use its Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy boosters for the flights.
2020 Launch Record: 6-1
2019 Launch Record: 6-0
Launch Vehicle: Electron
Launch Site: Mahia Peninsula, New Zealand
Rocket Lab got 2020 off to a good start on Jan. 31 when its Electron rocket launched a classified payload for the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office (NRO). The NROL-151 mission, dubbed “Birds of a Feather,” was the company’s 10th successful launch in 11 attempts.
Electron’s next launch on June 13 carried three NRO satellites. Another payload was Boston University’s ANDESITE CubeSat, which was designed to study space weather and Earth’s magnetosphere. The M2 Pathfinder technology demonstration satellite, developed University of New South Wales Canberra Space and Australian government, was also successfully deployed during the “Don’t Stop Me Now” mission.
Then came the unlucky 13th launch. On July 5, the Electron launcher failed when the booster’s second stage shut down prematurely. Engineers later determined that a faulty electrical connection resulted in power being cut to the stage’s electric turbopumps.
Seven small satellites were lost in the launch failure. They included five Flock-4e Earth observation satellites owned by Planet, the CE-SAT-IB Earth observation spacecraft developed by Canon of Japan, and In-Space Missions’ Faraday-1 technology demonstration.
Rocket Lab tightened its quality control procedures and successfully returned Electron to flight in less than two months. On Aug. 30, an Electron launched the Sequoia radar satellite for Capella Space.
In October, an Electron booster launched Canon Electronic’s CE-SAT-2B Earth-imaging microsatellite and nine SuperDove nanosats for Planet.
The following month, Electron launched 30 small payloads for Swarm Technologies, Te Pūnaha Ātea – Auckland Space Institute, TriSept, Unseenlabs and Gabe Newell, who co-founded the software gaming company Valve.
During this mission, Rocket Lab successfully recovered the Electron’s first stage for the first time after it made a soft landing in the ocean under parachute. The company plans to recover first stages using a helicopter for later reuse.
Rocket Lab closed out its launch year in December with the successful launch of the StriX-α synthetic aperture radar satellite for the Japanese company Synspective. StriX-α is the first of a 30-satellite constellation that will collect data on metropolitan centers in Asia.
Rocket Lab also continued development and testing of its Photon satellite bus. Based on the company’s Kick Stage, Photon is being developed for small satellite missions to the moon, Mars and Venus.
United Launch Alliance (ULA)
2020 Launch Record: 6-0
2019 Launch Record: 5-0
Launch Vehicles: Atlas V, Delta IV Heavy
Launch Site: Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Fla.
ULA’s most prominent launch was of NASA’s Mars 2020 Perseverance mission on July 30. An Atlas V booster sent the large rover to the Red Planet from Cape Canaveral in Florida. The rover landed successfully on Feb. 18, 2021.
Perseverance is designed to search for signs of ancient life and to gather soil samples for collection and return to Earth by a joint American-European mission that will launch later in the decade. The rover also carried a small experimental helicopter named Ingenuity and a system designed to extract oxygen from carbon dioxide in the Martian atmosphere.
ULA also launched the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Solar Orbiter, which is designed to study the sun. NASA is partner in the program.
ULA’s remaining three Atlas V and one Delta IV Heavy launchers carried national security payloads. In May, an Atlas V launched the military’s mysterious X-37B space plane into orbit.
ULA was successful in winning a multi-billion dollar U.S. Air Force contract to continue launching defense payloads for a five-year period beginning in 2022. The Air Force divided launches between ULA and SpaceX.
ULA plans to use the Atlas V booster and its new Vulcan Centaur rocket to launch the military’s payloads. Vulcan Centaur is scheduled to make its maiden flight in early 2022. ULA will continue to use the Atlas V to launch Boeing Starlink crew vehicles to ISS.
ULA’s Delta’s IV heavy booster is being retired after it flies out its manifest. The demise of the booster is attributed to SpaceX’s development of the Falcon Heavy, which the company offers at much lower prices.
2020 Launch Record: 3-0
2019 Launch Record: 3-0
Launch Vehicles: Antares, Minotaur IV
Launch Site: NASA Wallops Flight Facility, Va.
Northrop Grumman launched two Cygnus resupply ships to the space station last year using its Antares booster. The expendable freighters carried 6,928 kg (15,274 lb) of equipment, supplies and experiments to the orbiting laboratory. Cargo included a new $23 million space toilet called the Universal Waste Management System.
On July 15, a Northrop Grumman Minotaur IV rocket launched four classified payloads for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO). The mission, known NROL-129, was the NRO’s first launch aboard the four-stage, solid-fuel Minotaur IV booster.
Minotaur IV’s first three stages are composed of motors from decommissioned Peacekeeper intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs); the fourth stage uses a commercial Orion 38 motor. Minotaur IV is capable of launching payloads weighing up to 1,730 kg (3,814 lb) into low Earth orbit.
While Northup Grumman’s 2020 launch campaign was successful, the company had far less luck at winning future contracts. The company lost out to SpaceX and ULA in the competition to launch national security payloads for the 2022-27 period.
Northrop needed the U.S. Air Force contract to complete development of its OmegA rocket to launch the satellites. The company subsequently canceled the booster program.
Meanwhile, Northrop Grumman has found there is limited demand for its existing boosters. The Antares rocket has been limited to launching Cygnus spacecraft for NASA since its debut in April 2013. Northrop Grumman has not announced any additional government or commercial launch contracts for the booster.
A key problem is that Antares uses a first stage built in Ukraine that is powered by a pair of Russian RD-181 engines. The U.S. military has mandated that future national security payloads be launched on American rockets without Russian components.
Northrup’s Minotaur launchers are limited to government payloads because they are prohibited from competing on the commercial market. The reason is that Minotaur boosters are large composed of retired Peacekeeper and Minuteman ICBM motors. The federal government has decided it doesn’t want the surplus rockets competing with commercial launch vehicles.
2020 Launch Record: 0-2
Launch Vehicles: Rocket 3.1, 3.2
Launch Site: Pacific Spaceport Complex — Alaska
Rocket 3.1’s first-stage engine shut down about 30 seconds after launch on Sept. 11. The rocket fell back to Earth and exploded in a fireball after hitting the ground. The booster had no payload aboard.
“Early in the flight, our guidance system appears to have introduced some slight oscillation into the flight, causing the vehicle to drift from its planned trajectory leading to a commanded shutdown of the engines by the flight safety system,” the company said in a blog post.
Rocket 3.2 was more successful on Dec . 15. The booster’s second stage entered space but fell just short of orbital velocity.
“Rocket 3.2 precisely achieved its target altitude of 380 kilometers at 7.2 km/sec… just short of orbital velocity of 7.68 km/sec.,” the company said in a blog post. “Our data shows that all of the rocket’s hardware and software performed exceptionally well, and that only a small adjustment to the mixture ratio of fuel and oxidizer stands between us and our first customer payload delivery in a few months.
“Most importantly, this means that Astra can immediately begin delivering for our customers. As of today, we have contracted over two dozen launches, representing over 100 spacecraft. We are immediately executing our plan to ramp up rocket production and launch operations,” the company said.
Astra’s Rocket 3 boosters are capable of launching up to 150 kg (331 lb) into orbit.
2020 Launch Record: 0-1
Launch Vehicles: LauncherOne, Boeing 747 Cosmic Girl (carrier aircraft)
Launch Site: Mojave Air and Space Port, Calif.
Virgin Orbit’s long awaited maiden flight of LauncherOne failed on May 25. After being released from under the wing of the Boeing 747 Cosmic Girl, the rocket’s first stage fired for about four seconds before a broken propellant line starved it of fuel. The booster fell into the Pacific Ocean off the coast of California.
The air-launched booster is capable of launching 500 kg (1,102 lb) into a 230 km (143 mile) high low Earth orbit and 300 kg (661 lb) into a 500 km (311 mile) high sun synchronous orbit.
It was the first ever orbital launch attempt originating from the Mojave Air and Space Port. The desert facility had previously hosted three suborbital launches by Scaled Composites SpaceShipOne and two suborbital flights by Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo.
While Virgin Orbit’s maiden launch attempt failed, the company made progress in other areas. In April, it announced an agreement to originate launches from Oita Airport in Japan as early as 2022. The deal involved Oita Prefecture, Space Port Japan Association and ANA Holdings Inc.
Virgin Orbit also plans to launch satellites from the U.S. territory of Guam, Cornwall Airport Newquay in England, and the Alcantara Space Center in Brazil.
Virgin Orbit’s subsidiary, VOX Space,announced a contract for three dedicated launches to deliver multiple payloads for the U.S. Space Force. The launches will be done for the Department of Defense’s Space Test Program-S28 (STP-S28).
Virgin Orbit also signed an agreement with ImageSat International, a global leader in space intelligence, to develop “an end-to-end responsive space service offering focused on national security customers.”
Richard Branson’s launch company reportedly spent $1 billion getting to orbit. At the end of 2020, it was looking to raise an additional $200 million in investment. The company’s plan has since shifted to going public through a merger with a special purpose acquisition company.
U.S. INTERNATIONAL SPACE STATION MISSIONS
2020 Record: 6-0
2019 Record: 7-0
U.S. companies launched six of the 11 missions to ISS last year. The total included four missions by SpaceX divided evenly between crew and cargo flights and a pair of resupply flights by Northrop Grumman’s Cygnus freighter.
U.S. Missions to International Space Station, 2020
|Date||Launch Vehicle||Spacecraft||Launch Site||Mission|
|02/15/20||Antares||Cygnus NG-13||Wallops Island||ISS Resupply|
|03/06/20||Falcon 9||Dragon (CRS-20)||Cape Canaveral||ISS Resupply|
|05/30/20||Falcon 9||Crew Dragon (Demo-2)||Kennedy||ISS Crew|
|10/03/20||Antares||Cygnus NG-14||Wallops Island||ISS Resupply|
|11/15/20||Falcon 9||Crew Dragon (Crew-1)||Kennedy||ISS Crew|
|12/06/20||Falcon 9||Dragon||Kennedy||ISS Resupply|
SpaceX’s first Dragon cargo mission in March featured a capsule flying to ISS for the third time. It was also the last of the first-generation cargo Dragon ships to fly.
The second mission in December involved an upgraded and more capable variant based on the new Crew Dragon spacecraft. The new vehicle has 20 percent more internal space, and double the amount of powered locker cargo capacity. The upgraded spacecraft is designed to fly to ISS five times and can stay attached to the station for more than twice as long as the first generation of cargo Dragon ships.
While SpaceX’s Crew Dragon visited the station twice last year, America’s other commercial crew vehicle, Boeing CST-100 Starliner, remained grounded. The company and NASA worked to correct software errors that prevented an uncrewed Starliner from reaching the space station during its first orbital flight test in December 2019.
Boeing plans to launch a second uncrewed Starliner flight test to the station on July 30. A crewed flight to ISS would follow to complete the test program.
U.S. LAUNCHES BY SPACEPORT
Cape Canaveral Space Force Station remained the busiest spaceport in the world with 20 orbital launches last year. The total included 14 launches of SpaceX’s Falcon 9s, five launches of ULA’s Atlas V and a single ULA Delta IV Heavy flight.
Twenty-four of SpaceX’s 25 orbital launches were conducted from Florida. The company conducted 14 launches from Cape Canaveral and all 10 flight from the adjoining Kennedy Space Center. The company launches from Kennedy’s historic Pad 39A, which previously hosted Apollo lunar and space shuttle missions.
Launches by U.S. Companies by Spaceport, 2020
|Mahia Peninsula||New Zealand||6||1||7|
|PSC – Alaska||Alaska||0||2||2|
On Aug. 30, SpaceX conducted the first polar orbit mission from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station since 1969. The primary mission was to launch the SAOCOM 1B Earth observation satellite for the Argentina space agency CONAE. Secondary payloads include the Tyvak-0172 technology demonstration satellite and PlanetIQ’s GNOMES-1 radio occultation satellite.
California-based Rocket Lab launched a record seven times from its spaceport on the Mahia Peninsula in New Zealand. The company commenced work on a second launch complex at its Mahia Peninsula facility in New Zealand.
Rocket Lab also completed a new launch pad on Wallops Island in Virginia. The first launch from Wallops is scheduled for later this year.
Vandenberg Air Force Base, which rivals Cape Canaveral in terms of launch infrastructure, saw only a single orbital launch last year. SpaceX launched the Sentinel 6-Michael Freilich oceanography satellite from the West Coast base, which is used exclusively for polar orbit flights.
The rarely used Pacific Spaceport Complex — Alaska hosted two launch attempts by Astra. And one orbital launch attempt originated from the Mojave Air and Space Port.
Tomorrow: China ties its own record for launches