2019: A Busy Year in Suborbital Flight

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

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Last year was a busy one for suborbital flights as Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic conducted a combined four flights of their crewed suborbital vehicles. Despite hopes to the contrary, neither company flew paying tourists on their spaceships.

There were also 26 sounding rocket launches that carried scientific experiments and technology payloads above the atmosphere. The year saw:

  • Japanese startup Interstellar Technologies conduct a successful launch of its Momo commercial sounding rocket;
  • Texas-based Exos Aerospace continue to struggle with its reusable SARGE booster; and,
  • the first suborbital launch ever achieved by college students.

American entities conducted the vast majority of suborbital flights. Sixty percent of the launches were conducted from U.S. soil. Scandinavian launch sites in Norway and Sweden accounted for another 30 percent of the flights.

Successful launch pad abort tests of Boeing’s Starliner and NASA’s Orion spacecraft were also performed last year in preparation for crewed orbital and lunar flights. The tests cannot be counted as suborbital flights, however, because neither vehicle came close to reaching space.

Virgin Galactic

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

On Feb. 21, SpaceShipTwo Unity made its second suborbital flight from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California. The vehicle reached its highest speed and altitude — Mach 3.04 and 295,007 ft — to date during its second launch in 10 weeks.

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

Mackay began the first Scottish-born native to fly in space. And Moses became the first person to float around in a commercial spacecraft.

The three crew members were later presented with commercial astronaut wings from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

Unity was withdrawn from flight testing for the rest of the year so that engineers could fit out the cabin with four seats for passengers. The vehicle has not flown since that flight 11 months ago.

Virgin Galactic moved many staff members from Mojave to New Mexico last year as it prepared to conduct further flight tests and begin commercial operations at Spaceport America in 2020.

Interior of the Gateway to Space in New Mexico. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

Branson’s company also outfitted the Virgin Galactic Gateway to Space building that will serve as a hangar and passenger terminal for SpaceShipTwo and its WhiteKnightTwo carrier plane. The building had sat largely unused for nearly eight years since since Branson dedicated it in October 2011.

WhiteKnightTwo was also moved to New Mexico last year to allow pilots to practice flying from Spaceport America. The move freed up space in Virgin’s production hangar in Mojave, where two additional spaceships are under construction and a second WhiteKnightTwo will be built.

SpaceShipTwo flight tests are set to resume this year at Spaceport America with the goal of flying Branson aboard the first commercial mission in time for his 70th birthday on July 18.

Richard Branson celebrates the first Virgin Galactic trade on the New York Stock Exchange. (Credit Virgin Galactic)

In October, Virgin Galactic went public on the New York Stock Exchange after merging with an already traded investment vehicle, Social Capital Hedosophia. Social Capital acquired about 49 percent of Branson’s space tourism company and its manufacturing arm, The Spaceship Company, for $774 million based on a valuation of $1.5 billion.

Blue Origin

Ground crew recover experiments that launched on the reusable New Shepard rocket on which the microgap-cooling technology flew twice. (Credit: Blue Origin)

Blue Origin launched its New Shepard suborbital vehicle three times from Corn Ranch in west Texas last year. The company’s goal to fly test subjects aboard the six-seat capsule by the end of 2019 fell by the wayside as it had during previous years.

New Shepard flew for the tenth time on Jan. 23. The vehicle carried eight NASA-funded research and technology payloads under the space agency’s Flight Opportunities Program.

New Shepard flew again on May 2 with 38 payloads aboard from academia, government agencies and private companies. It was the fifth flight for the rocket.

In September, Blue Origin CEO Bob Smith said the company planned two more flight tests before it would begin to fly people aboard. Tickets are expected to cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The first of the remaining two flight tests was conducted on Dec. 11. New Shepard’s ninth commercial mission carried the program’s 100th payload.

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 crewed flights. The delibrate pace is in step with its Gradatim Ferociter (“step by step, ferociously”) motto.

There is also reason to question whether the New Shepard program has slipped somewhat in priority. Bezos’ main goal is to colonize space, and his company is pursuing an aggressive program aimed at the moon.

In October, Bezos announced the company had signed an agreement with Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Draper to offer a human landing system for NASA’s Artemis program, whose goal is to land astronauts on the south pole of the moon by 2024.

The following month, NASA added Blue Origin to its growing pool of companies eligible to bid on contracts for taking instruments and experiments to the moon under the Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPs) initiative. The primary focus of CLPs is smaller, automated vehicles.

Throughout 2019, Blue Origin continued development of its New Glenn booster to launch payloads to the moon and Earth orbit. The work included testing of the new BE-4 engine, which will power New Glenn and United Launch Alliance’s (ULA) Vulcan booster.

Blue Origin, ULA, Northrop Grumman and SpaceX are all competing for contracts to launch U.S. national security payloads from 2024-28. The U.S. Air Force is expected to award contracts to only two companies later this year.

Suborbital Flights By Booster

Sounding rocket lifts off from Wallops Flight Facility. (Credit: NASA/Allison Stancil-Ervin)

In addition to four launches by Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic, there were 26 suborbital flights by sounding rockets. These boosters compiled a record of 21 successes, three failures and two partial failures.

Launch Vehicle
SuccessesFailuresPartial Failures
Black Brant IX77
Terrier-Improved Malemute3 14
New Shepard3 3
Black Brant IXA22
Black Brant XIIA2 2
SpaceLoft XL1  1
SpaceShipTwo1  1
Terrier-Improved Orion1  1
Terrier Malemute1  1
Traveler IV1  1

Variants of the Black Brant flew more than one third of all suborbital flights last year with a record of 11-0. The Malemute family of boosters flew five times with four successes and one failure.

EXOS Aerospace launched its reusable SARGE rockets three times from Spaceport America with small research payloads aboard. The first flight on March 2 reached an altitude of 20 km (12.5 miles), far short of of the 80-km (50 mile) target.

SARGE failed seconds after takeoff on its third flight on June 29. The booster was recovered and repaired.

The rocket’s third launch on Oct. 26 went out of control after takeoff and crashed near the launch pad. The booster reached an altitude of only 12.6 km (7.8 miles) instead of 80 km.

Interstellar Technologies, a commercial startup from Japan, had a successful flight of its Momo rocket on May 3. The booster reached 113 km (70.2 miles) after launch from the Taiki Aerospace Research Field. It carried an infrasound propagation measurement instrument for the Kochi University of Technology.

Interstellar’s next launch on July 27 wasn’t nearly as successful. The Momo booster reach an altitude of 13 km (8 miles) before suffering a premature engine shutdown.

On April 21, the University of Southern California’s Rocket Propulsion Lab made history at Spaceport America by conducting the first suborbital flight by a student team. The Traveler IV rocket reached an altitude of 104 km (64.6 miles).

Launches by Spaceport

Eighteen suborbital launches were conducted from U.S. launch sites. An additional flight took place from a U.S. military range on Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands.

Launch Site
Partial Failures
Spaceport AmericaUSA2215
AndoyaNorway4  4
Wallops IslandUSA4 4
White SandsUSA44
Corn RanchUSA3  3
EsrangeSweden3 3
TaikiJapan11 2
Kwajalein AtollMarshall Islands1  1
MojaveUSA1  1
Pacific Missile RangeUSA1  1

New Mexico had a busy year with nine suborbital launches in total. Spaceport America saw five launch attempts, two of which were fully successful.

Four launches were conducted from Spaceport America’s neighbor White Sands Missile Range. The range also hosted Boeing’s Starliner pad abort test, which was technically not a suborbital flight.

The number of suborbital flights from New Mexico should rise this year as Virgin Galactic ramps up flights of SpaceShipTwo.

Four launches were conducted from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. New Shepard flew three times from Corn Ranch. And the Mojave spaceport and the Pacific Missile Range on the Hawaiian island of Kauia hosted one suborbital flight apiece.

Six launches were conducted in Norway at the Andoya and Ny-Aalesund ranges. Three sounding rockets were launched from Esrange in Sweden.

Spacecraft Abort Tests

Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner’s four launch abort engines and several orbital maneuvering and attitude control thrusters ignite in the company’s Pad Abort Test, pushing the spacecraft away from the test stand with a combined 160,000 pounds of thrust, from Launch Complex 32 on White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. Credits: NASA

On July 2, NASA conducted a launch pad abort test for its Orion crew vehicle from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The spacecraft was launched on a Peacekeeper intercontinental ballistic missile first stage motor that Northrop Grumman modified after procuring it from the U.S. Air Force. 

Orion fired its escape as planned after 55 seconds of flight. The vehicle did not have a parachute system installed, so it was lost when it crashed into the Atlantic Ocean. However, data were transmitted to controllers and a dozen recoverable data recorders were ejected from the capsule before it hit the water.

On Nov. 4, Boeing conducted a pad abort test for the Starliner spacecraft at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. The company is developing the spacecraft to carry astronauts to the International Space Station under NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.

The test was deemed successful despite the failure of one of its three parachutes. Boeing said the problem, which involved a pin that was not properly positioned, was easily fixable.