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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Here’s what’s coming up in new year in spaceflight

By Christian Davenport The Washington Post

WASHINGTON – When Vice President Mike Pence called for NASA to speed up its plan to return astronauts to the moon by 2024, instead of 2028 as originally planned, many derided the directive as fantasy. Other administrations had laid out grand plans for America’s adventure in space, but few funded them.

And no one has been to the lunar surface since 1972.

But this year could herald significant moments in space exploration: NASA astronauts flying from U.S. soil for the first time since 2011, the first paying tourists traveling to the edge of space, rockets sending hundreds of satellites into Earth orbit to beam the internet to remote parts of the globe, and the first serious steps toward returning a human being to the surface of the moon.

But as 2020 begins, the rosy promise of those developments could quickly be overruled by gravity and engineering issues. Already, NASA finds itself struggling with a technical problem – a software issue that marred the maiden flight of Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft just before Christmas and prevented it from reaching the International Space Station. It is a reminder of the many things that can go wrong when attempting to punch through the atmosphere.

This year is born full of hope and enthusiastic predictions of triumph despite 2019’s catalog of calamity, a one-step-forward-two-steps-back year marked as much by failure as by success – by stuck valves, failed parachute systems and faulty onboard computers.

Yet hope remains for triumph. NASA will celebrate 20 continuous years of humans living in orbit aboard the ISS, and there are other records likely to be set.

SpaceX intends to break its record of 21 launches in a single year. The United Launch Alliance, the joint venture of Lockheed Martin and Boeing, plans to fly about a dozen times, including Boeing’s first mission with astronauts to the space station. Northrop Grumman has three launches planned.

Despite the recent problems that have plagued Boeing and SpaceX, which lost its spacecraft when it blew up last year during an engine test, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine remains confident those companies will boost astronauts into space in 2020, ending an ignominious nine-year hiatus of human spaceflight from the United States that began when the space shuttle fleets were retired in 2011.

Other key moments in space set for 2020: as many as four missions to Mars by several countries, including China, and a key test of the monster rocket Boeing and others are building that NASA hopes will put astronauts on the moon by 2024.

Then again, space is costly, dangerous and exceedingly difficult, and what looked like a sure thing in January could fall to pieces by summer.

The space industry has had a nice run over the past several years, attracting millions of dollars of private investment but now is headed to a turning point, said Carissa Christensen, the CEO of consulting firm Bryce Space and Technology.

“Now that’s moving to a phase of: Prove it,” she said. “Companies are having to prove they’re viable and their business model flows, and some are succeeding and some are not.

Human spaceflight

SpaceX was scheduled to start the year with a launch from Cape Canaveral to put 60 more satellites into low Earth orbit, part of a constellation that eventually could reach thousands that it hopes would beam the internet to remote parts of the globe without broadband.

Assembling that architecture in space will require dozens of launches, which many think could have the California-based company break its record for the most launches in a single year, 21 in 2018.

If all goes well, SpaceX is hoping to follow with its first flight with people in the coming months.

Boeing also is moving aggressively despite the problems that hampered the first test flight of its Starliner spacecraft. Officials said the spacecraft’s onboard timer was off by 11 hours, and, as a result, the engines that would have propelled it on a trajectory to the space station never fired.

The company, which fired its chief executive Dennis Muilenburg in the wake of the 737 Max airplane crisis, is still investigating what caused the problem. But company officials said they were preparing the spacecraft for its next mission, and its life support system had performed well. The spacecraft “shows little scorching from the heat of atmospheric re-entry,” the company said.

When it comes to human spaceflight, no one has made more overly optimistic pronouncements than Richard Branson, the founder of Virgin Galactic. For years, the British-born billionaire has predicted his company would soon ferry legions of paying tourists to the edge of space and back, but he has had to delay again and again.

Now, having reached what many consider the edge of space twice – once at the end of 2018 and again early last year – the company says it is poised to finally begin flying the hundreds of people who’ve put down as much as $250,000 for a ticket.

The company, which recently went public after merging with a New York investment firm, projects flying 66 customers this year, more than 700 in 2021 and nearly 1,000 the following year, according to a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Blue Origin, the space venture founded by Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos, also said it intends to fly humans for the first time in 2020. (Bezos owns The Washington Post.) But unlike Branson, Bezos has been relatively quiet about his space tourism plans. The company has announced no price for the missions in its reusable New Shepard vehicle, which would offer a few minutes of weightlessness.

In December, it launched its latest test without astronauts, a mission it said helped it move “closer toward verifying New Shepard for human flight.”

In addition to flying its astronauts from the Florida Space Coast, NASA’s biggest priority for 2020 is to continue to work toward meeting the White House’s mandate to return humans to the moon by 2024.

The next big step is to award the contract to build a lander capable of taking astronauts to the lunar surface. Boeing is vying for the contract, as is a team led by Blue Origin that also includes Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Draper.

It’s not clear, however, whether the money will be there to meet the 2024 deadline.