Launch 2020: U.S. Reclaimed Top Spot, Flew Astronauts Again from American Soil

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)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

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.

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Launch 2020: A Busy Year Filled with Firsts in the Face of COVID-19 Pandemic

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 dominated, China surged and Russia had another clean sheet as American astronauts flew from U.S. soil again in a year of firsts.

First in a series

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, 2020 was a very busy launch year with a number of firsts in both human and robotic exploration. A total of 114 orbital launches were attempted, with 104 successes and 10 failures. It was the same number of launches that were conducted in 2018, with that year seeing 111 successes, two failures and one partial failure.

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2020 a Busy Year for Suborbital Launches

New Shepard landing on the pad in West Texas on October 13, 2020, with the NASA Lunar Landing Sensor Demo onboard. (Credit: Blue Origin)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Suborbital launch used to be a sleepy field that rarely attracted much public attention. Let’s face it, atmospheric research and student experiments are not front-page news. Sounding rockets don’t have the majesty and power of a Falcon 9 or Atlas V.

In recent years, exciting new entrants in the field and widespread streaming of launches have made suborbital flights exciting. Last year saw important suborbital flight tests by SpaceX, Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic and Skyrora that garnered worldwide interest.

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The Year of the Four Spaceships: Final Report

Crew Dragon docked at the International Space Station. (Credit: NASA webcast)

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 the disruption and deaths caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, it wasn’t the easiest year to get things done. Keeping that in mind, let’s see how the companies did in 2020. (Spoiler Alert: they came up a little short.)

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Space Florida Looks Back on a Busy Year

EXPLORATION PARK, Fla. (December 23, 2020) – Today, Space Florida shared the many accomplishments of Florida’s aerospace and commercial space industry in 2020. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Florida’s Cape Canaveral Spaceport kept launching rockets. In May, the world watched as American astronauts lifted off from Florida for the first time since 2011, marking a new era of human spaceflight and commercial space exploration. The aerospace industry represents a key part of the State’s strategy for post-pandemic economic recovery, and Space Florida has good reason to be enthusiastic about the future of aerospace.

“Despite the challenges that COVID-19 brought to the State, our industry and our organization, Space Florida is pleased to have had a successful year of growth within the aerospace industry here in the State of Florida, with support from Governor DeSantis as well as our Board Chair and Lieutenant Governor Nuñez,” said Space Florida President and CEO Frank DiBello. “Space Florida is working with other economic development partners to create an energized driving force in recruiting these companies to the Sunshine State. The future of this industry is very bright, representing an increasingly important segment of Florida’s economy.

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Canada’s Top Space Highlights of 2020

Credit: Canadian Space Agency

LONGUEUIL, Que. (CSA PR) — It’s an understatement to say that 2020 was an exceptional year. As the year draws to a close, here’s a look at some of the most compelling, inspirational and incredible moments for Canada in space. Happy New Year!

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NASA Perseveres Through Pandemic to Complete Successful 2020

WASHINGTON (NASA PR) — In 2020, NASA made significant progress on America’s Moon to Mars exploration strategy, met mission objectives for the Artemis program, achieved significant scientific advancements to benefit humanity, and returned human spaceflight capabilities to the United States, all while agency teams acted quickly to assist the national COVID-19 response.

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New SpaceX Video on Crew Dragon Demo-2 Mission

Video Caption: Crew Dragon’s test flight with NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley on board the spacecraft marked the return of U.S. human spaceflight and the first-time in history a commercial company successfully transported NASA astronauts to the International Space Station and back home to Earth.

Crew Dragon Flight Delayed Again to Late October

NASA’s SpaceX Crew-1 crew members are seen seated in the company’s Crew Dragon spacecraft during crew equipment interface training. From left to right are NASA astronauts Shannon Walker, mission specialist; Victor Glover, pilot; and Mike Hopkins, Crew Dragon commander; and JAXA astronaut Soichi Noguchi, mission specialist. (Credit: SpaceX)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

NASA has announced that the first operational Crew Dragon flight to the International Space Station originally scheduled for late this month and then late September has been delayed for a second time to no earlier than Oct. 23.

The Crew Dragon will carry NASA astronauts Michael Hopkins, Victor Glover, and Shannon Walker along with Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi for a six-month science mission aboard the space station.

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Behnken, Hurley to Discuss Crew Dragon Flight

Crew Dragon astronauts on their way to the spacecraft. (Credit: NASA)

HOUSTON (NASA PR) — NASA astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley will discuss their recently completed SpaceX Demo-2 test flight mission to the International Space Station during a news conference at 4:30 p.m. EDT Tuesday, Aug. 4.

The news conference from NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston will be broadcast live on NASA Television and on the agency’s website.

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U.S. Coast Guard Statement on Private Boats Approaching Crew Dragon Capsule

Support teams and curious recreational boaters arrive at the SpaceX Crew Dragon Endeavour spacecraft shortly after it landed with NASA astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley onboard in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Pensacola, Florida, Sunday, Aug. 2, 2020. (Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls)

Regarding the Pleasurecraft that were Present at the Splashdown this Afternoon
U.S. Coast Guard

The Coast Guard worked closely with NASA and SpaceX to plan the recovery of the Dragon crew in a way that prioritized the safety of the boating public and those involved in the recovery operations.

Mariners were alerted to pending hazardous operations within a specified boundary by a Broadcast Notice to Mariners, issued 29 July.

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NASA’s SpaceX Demo-2: Teams Targeting Gulf of Mexico for Splashdown

The International Space Station’s two newest crew members, NASA astronauts Bob Behnken, left, and Doug Hurley, are pictured having just entered the orbiting lab shortly after arriving aboard the SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft. (Credit: NASA)

HOUSTON (NASA PR) — Following a scheduled assessment of weather conditions for splashdown, teams from NASA and SpaceX are proceeding with preparations to bring NASA astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley home to Earth  aboard the SpaceX Crew Dragon “Endeavour” spacecraft.

Conditions are “Go” at the primary targeted site, off the coast Pensacola, and alternate site off the coast of Panama City in the Gulf of Mexico for splashdown and recovery on Sunday, Aug. 2. Teams will continue to closely monitor Hurricane Isaias and evaluate impacts to the potential splashdown sites.

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NASA and SpaceX Remain GO for Splashdown

The International Space Station’s two newest crew members, NASA astronauts Bob Behnken, left, and Doug Hurley, are pictured having just entered the orbiting lab shortly after arriving aboard the SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft. (Credit: NASA)

HOUSTON (NASA PR) — Following a comprehensive review of the latest weather forecast in the areas surrounding each of seven potential splashdown locations, NASA and SpaceX have decided to move forward with plans to bring NASA astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley home to Earth with a splashdown off the Florida coast on Sunday, Aug. 2, aboard the SpaceX Crew Dragon “Endeavour” spacecraft.

Teams will continue to closely monitor Tropical Storm Isaias and evaluate impacts to weather around the Florida peninsula, including the potential splashdown sites in the Gulf of Mexico and along the state’s Atlantic coast. NASA and SpaceX will make a decision on a primary splashdown target approximately 6 hours before undocking Saturday.

Undocking remains scheduled for approximately 7:34 p.m. EDT Saturday, Aug. 1, and splashdown at 2:42 p.m. EDT on Sunday. This will mark the first return of a commercially built and operated American spacecraft carrying astronauts from the space station, and it will wrap up NASA’s SpaceX Demo-2 mission after more than two months at the International Space Station.

The Crew Dragon spacecraft carrying Hurley and Behnken lifted off from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on May 30 and arrived at the space station the following day. The Demo-2 test flight is helping NASA certify SpaceX’s crew transportation system for regular flights carrying astronauts to and from the orbiting laboratory. SpaceX is readying the hardware for the first rotational mission, which would occur following NASA certification.

More details about the return can be found in the Top 10 Things to Know for NASA’s SpaceX Demo-2 Return and the splashdown weather criteria fact sheet.