It's almost a wrap on 2019 and the end of a decade that witnessed some giant leaps forward in the space industry. Before we bid adieu, we thought it'd be fun to count down the biggest space stories of the year. Here's our unquestionable, indisputable, incontrovertible top 10 list that brooks no argument. Drumroll please:
Sending leviathan rockets beyond Earth’s atmosphere is no small feat, yet Rocket Lab makes it look easy. The Los Angeles/New Zealand-based startup has gone 10 for 10 in successful customer launches, presenting itself as a viable alternative to SpaceX, Boeing, Northrop Grumman and other heavy-hitting aerospace brands. Its recent Dec. 6th launch was of particular importance because its Electron single-use rocket was guided back to Earth in one piece, helping to pave the way as the company explores launch vehicle reusability.
Space tourism is set to become big business in the decade to come with Blue Origin, SpaceX, and Virgin Galactic vying to make the next frontier a holiday hotspot. Sir Richard Branson’s company has gotten a jumpstart on the market by being the first space tourism company to go public. Following a bumpy debut, the company's stock (SPCE) popped recently after Morgan Stanley gave it a "buy" rating. While Virgin Galactic has yet to blast a single civilian astronaut off of this rock, tickets have all reportedly sold out demonstrating that space tourism will be an incredibly lucrative enterprise.
Even if a space startup has great technology to offer, getting investors onboard and contracts signed can be a long and challenging odyssey. But the US Air Force is cutting the timeline to mere hours. In November, the military branch held its first Space Pitch Day where it awarded entrepreneurs it wanted to be in business with million-dollar contracts right on the spot. The “shark tank” is intended to be an annual event aimed at finding and investing in nontraditional vendors as the Air Force searches for space innovations to apply to military problems.
You know what’s harder than launching a rocket? Keeping an aerospace company in business. While some of its competitors folded in 2019, Relativity Space had a defining year. The three-year-old startup 3D prints entire rockets in just a day or two, allowing it to speed and scale manufacturing. Although it has yet to send a launch vehicle into orbit, its technology is so promising that it has already signed four paying customers (Telesat, Spaceflight, Momentus and mu Space) and secured $140 million in new funding to continue revolutionizing how rockets get made.
In October, Elon Musk clowned SLS (Space Launch System) – NASA’s long-delayed and massively over budget rocket system that’s intended to take astronauts into deep space and herald a new era of space exploration. The ribbing may have paid off because it looks like the SLS team finally got its act together. On December 9th, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine debuted the 212-foot-tall, fully assembled core stage of the most powerful rocket ever built. Experts peg each taxpayer funded SLS flight at $1 billion, or about 11 times more than SpaceX's Falcon Heavy rocket. If this price point holds true then it’s possible the rocket may never take flight and push NASA deeper into the grip of private space companies.
SpaceX has done a bang up job at ferrying cargo to the ISS, but the real glory is sending up humans. The company has made it a mission to send American astronauts to the space station in 2020. NASA is fully on board as it no longer wants to rely on rockets from Russia, currently the world’s sole provider of human carrying launch vehicles. But getting SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft certified for human transport requires rigorous safety evaluations. After a series of frustrating failures, SpaceX pulled off 13 safety parachute tests and successfully launched abort thrusters during a static-fire test. The company still has a handful of other tests to complete in early 2020 and then its to the stars.
You might've been laboring under the delusion that the US or Russia was the leader in rocket launches given the storied rivalry between the two countries, but for the second year in a row China has executed more orbital launches than any other country. The Middle Kingdom has emerged as a force to be reckoned with in aerospace, further cementing its status as a major player on the world stage and positioning for success in the space economy.
In March, NASA had penciled in its first all-female spacewalk when it realized (to its likely undying embarrassment) that the agency only possessed one female-fitting spacesuit forcing it to reschedule. Seven months later they got their hands on that second suit allowing astronauts Christina Koch and Jessica Meir to make history when they ventured out of the International Space Station to replace a power controller. According to NASA, the seven-hour all-female walk was not purposefully planned but bound to happen because of the increasing number of female astronauts.
Fifty years after Apollo 11 put Neil Armstrong on the moon, NASA affirmed it was going back and beyond under the Artemis Program which would see the first woman place her bootprints on the lunar surface come 2024 (in Greek mythology Artemis is the twin sister of Apollo.) There are a number of objectives Artemis seeks to fulfill beyond a moon landing including establishing a station around the satellite that would extend humanity's presence in space, and serving as a launch pad to a mission to Mars. However, Congress has yet to fully fund the program so it is anybody's guess if any of it will actually happen.
International flights are expensive, but the cost of spaceflights are astronomical. It's estimated that the price of SpaceX's Falcon Heavy in recovery-mode is $90 million per launch, or $150 million in fully-expendable mode. The lofty price tag comes as a result of having to rebuild a rocket from scratch after each launch, or painstakingly refurbish it if recovered. But Musk envisions spaceflights like airplane flights where the vehicle makes a trip, returns to Earth and then makes another trip hours later. Enter Starship – a rapidly reusable rocket that can make flight after flight after flight just like an Airbus A380. Musk says that the major ongoing expense would simply be propellant, bringing the price of launches down to a mere $2 million. The (relative) affordability would really ignite the space economy and help achieve Musk's vision of making humans an interplanetary species.
That's the list. If you beg to differ with our order or want to highlight a story we missed, then we invite you to find this post on our social media channels and let us know your thoughts.