Jan 7, 2020 - Science

The make-or-break moment for U.S. spaceflight

Spaceflight launch illustration

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

This year Boeing and SpaceX will push to launch astronauts to orbit for NASA after years of delays, in an attempt to end U.S. reliance on Russian rockets for rides to the International Space Station.

Why it matters: Up and coming space powers like India and China are making plays at sending astronauts into space while launching increasingly ambitious missions to the Moon as NASA has been riding on its Cold War-era achievements in human spaceflight.

What's happening: Since the end of the space shuttle program, NASA has relied on Russian rockets for rides to the International Space Station.

  • If Boeing and SpaceX finally succeed, it will allow NASA to breathe the rarefied air reserved for uncontested space superpowers once again.

Yes, but: Hiccups for Boeing and SpaceX in 2019 could make a 2020 crewed launch for either company more difficult.

  • Boeing's Starliner spacecraft had to abort docking with the International Space Station during an uncrewed test flight due to issues as the vehicle reached orbit.
  • It's not yet clear how those technical problems might affect Boeing's planned crewed mission to the station, which was expected early this year.

Here's what else we're watching as the U.S. tries to solidify its 21st century dominance in space:

Moon missions: NASA is developing its Artemis program to bring people back to the surface of the Moon by 2024.

  • India is planning to send its own astronauts to orbit by 2022, and China is building a space station that's expected to be operational in two years.
  • All three of those programs will need to make significant progress in the next year in order to meet their ambitious timelines.

Space tourism: Companies like Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin are also expected to potentially start flying commercial suborbital missions sometime this year.

  • "This is a potential new space industry that has been anticipated and planned for 15 years and everyone's waiting to see if it will actually pan out," the Secure World Foundation's Brian Weeden told Axios via email.

Money makers: SpaceX and OneWeb are expected to launch more of their internet-beaming satellites to orbit, proving out the business case for these mega-constellations and showing just which companies may capitalize on it.

  • New rockets designed to launch small satellites and experiments to orbit are also expected to come online in the next year, with Virgin Orbit planning its first orbital launch early this year.
  • However, analysts are warning of a shakeout when it comes to small launchers, potentially throwing cold water on this sector of the industry.

Science: Four Mars missions are planned for 2020, with the U.S., China, the United Arab Emirates and a joint mission between Russia and Europe expected to launch later in the year.

  • The U.S. astronomy community at large will set its priorities for the coming decade this year, developing a key document that will help rank the highest-priority missions and scientific targets — like planets circling stars far from the Sun — in the next 10 years.

The bottom line: 2020 is shaping up to be one of the most consequential years for the space industry in recent memory, but technical issues and delays threaten to potentially undo that optimism.

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