In SpaceX’s early years at its first factory in El Segundo, the company had a mock-up of a spacecraft it planned to one day take humans into space. The company’s engineers called the capsule Magic Dragon, an allusion to the folk song “Puff, the Magic Dragon.” The dope name didn’t stick, but the pursuit of launching humans into space has remained one of SpaceX’s big goals since its inception in 2002.
Now that day may finally have arrived. The launch of Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken on a Crew Dragon spacecraft later this year, perhaps as early as this spring, represents the peak feat SpaceX will achieve in 2020, but it’s far from the only potential feat on the table. Here’s a look at some of the company’s key goals for this year.
The top priority for NASA in 2020 is to regain the capacity to transport its astronauts to the International Space Station on American vehicles. Since 2011 and the retirement of the space shuttle nearly a full decade ago, NASA has relied on Russia and its Soyuz spacecraft for such transport.
To end this dependency, NASA will need SpaceX, or Boeing, or both companies to fly their spacecraft by 2020. Both companies have had serious problems. SpaceX’s Crew Dragon performed a flawless test in March, but a month later the capsule exploded during a thruster test. Boeing completed an orbital unmanned test flight in December, but it was hampered by a software glitch and unable to perform its flight’s primary mission, approaching and docking the International Space Station.
After Boeing’s aborted test flight last month, SpaceX seems likely to be the first to take people to the launch pad. In December, the company completed 10 tests of a new parachute design and this month plans to complete an in-flight abort test of the Dragon’s launch escape system. If that test goes well, after a data review, SpaceX could become the world’s first private company to launch humans into orbit before the summer of this year. It’s going to be a big moment.
SpaceX had some success with its Starship program in 2019 when it built the stubby “Starhopper” prototype to test the performance of its new Raptor rocket engine. The vehicle made controlled flights, first from 20 meters and then 150 meters, before SpaceX moved on to build full-size prototypes of the Starship vehicle.
This process was not without its problems, but now SpaceX appears to be closer to a final design. According to Paul Wooster, the chief Mars development engineer at SpaceX, the company spent just over four years optimizing the shape, materials and performance of the Starship vehicle. It would be no small feat to build this fully reusable second stage for both cargo and, ultimately, people. So it took time and a lot of testing to get to this point.
SpaceX engineers have worked quickly to bring an airworthy model of Starship to the launch pad at Boca Chica Beach in South Texas. Founder and Chief Technical Designer Elon Musk spent the day (and overnight) after Christmas with his team working on pressurized fuel tank domes for the next iteration of the vehicle, now called SN1. While Musk’s timelines aren’t particularly reliable, he said this vehicle could be ready for test flights in two or three months.
A launch of the full Starship vehicle — which could one day take humans to the Moon or Mars — would be an important step toward SpaceX’s ultimate goal of establishing Mars. It could convince policymakers in Washington DC that the vehicle could play a role in the plans of the Artemis Moon program.
SpaceX has now launched two batches of 60 Starlink internet satellites, one of which was experimental and the second expected to be operational as part of a constellation in low Earth orbit. As early as January 6, the company expects to launch its second batch of operational satellites, known as the Starlink-2 mission. The Starlink-3 and Starlink-4 missions can also be launched in January.
At this kind of launch pace, SpaceX should be ready to offer an initial, “bumpy” service in mid-2020, the company’s president and chief operating officer, Gwynne Shotwell, said in December. The company plans to offer a “mature” service in 2021.
It will be interesting to see how SpaceX rolls out the service, which will require “user terminals” to receive Internet signals from the orbiting satellites. This will be the first consumer-oriented product to be offered by SpaceX and, if successful, could eventually generate revenue to accelerate the development of Starship and its Super Heavy rocket.
Fast, reusable launch
After peaking at 22 launches in 2018, the company took a step back in 2019 with 13 orbital launches — 11 by the Falcon 9 rocket and two by the Falcon Heavy launch vehicle.
But catastrophe aside, we can probably expect SpaceX to easily eclipse its record of 22 launches this year. With missions planned for commercial satellite customers, NASA and Starlink, it seems possible that SpaceX could launch 30 or more Falcon 9 rockets by 2020. This would easily make the Falcon 9 rocket the most experienced active US rocket – surpassing the Atlas V vehicle.
The limiting factor is likely to be SpaceX’s ability to produce second stages for the Falcon 9 rocket, as the company has already shown it can reuse the rocket’s first stage at least four times. One benefit of launching Starlink missions is that the company does not have to convince a customer that a particular Falcon 9 rocket is airworthy after several missions. It already proved this by repurposing a payload fairing in the first launch of operational Starlink satellites in November 2019. Expect more firsts in terms of total first stage utilization and fast turnaround times, with the dozens or more Starlink launches coming up. are expected this year.
The company designed and built the Falcon 9 rocket as a reusable, low-cost workhorse. This year, it can fully exploit the booster’s potential.