In the early years of SpaceX at its first factory in El Segundo, the company had a mock-up of a spacecraft that it intended 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 aspiration to launch humans into space has remained among SpaceX’s big goals since its founding in 2002.
Now, that day may finally be at hand. The launch of Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken on a Crew Dragon spacecraft later this year, perhaps as early as this spring, represents the top-level achievement SpaceX will reach for in 2020, but it is far from the only potential accomplishment on the table. Here’s a look at some of the company’s major goals for this year.
The biggest priority for NASA in 2020 is to regain the capacity to get its astronauts to the International Space Station on US vehicles. Since 2011 and the retirement of the space shuttle, now nearly a full decade ago, NASA has relied on Russia and its Soyuz spacecraft for such transport.
To end this reliance, NASA needs SpaceX, or Boeing, or both companies to get their spacecraft flying in 2020. Both companies have had serious hiccups. SpaceX’s Crew Dragon performed a flawless test back in March, but a month later the capsule exploded during a thruster test. Boeing completed an orbital uncrewed test flight in December, but it was hampered by a software issue and unable to perform the primary task of its flight, approaching and docking with the International Space Station.
After Boeing’s aborted test flight last month, SpaceX appears likely to be first to the launch pad with humans. 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, following a review of data, SpaceX could become the world’s first private company to launch humans into orbit before summer this year. It will be a big moment.
SpaceX had some success in 2019 with its Starship program as it built the stubby “Starhopper” prototype to test the performance of its new Raptor rocket engine. The vehicle made controlled flights, first of 20 meters and then 150 meters, before SpaceX moved on to build full-scale prototypes of the Starship vehicle.
This process has not been without some issues, but now SpaceX appears to be closer to a final design. According to Paul Wooster, the principal Mars development engineer at SpaceX, the company has spent a little more than four years working on 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, eventually, humans. So it has taken time, and a lot of testing, to get to even this point.
SpaceX engineers have been working rapidly to bring a flight-worthy model of Starship to the launch pad near Boca Chica Beach in South Texas. Company founder and chief technical designer Elon Musk spent the day (and night) after Christmas working with his team on pressurized fuel tank domes for the next iteration of the vehicle, now called SN1. Although Musk’s timelines are not particularly reliable, he said this vehicle may be ready for test flights in two or three months.
A launch of the full-scale Starship vehicle—which one day may ferry humans to the Moon or Mars—would represent a key step toward SpaceX’s ultimate goal of settling Mars. It might also convince policymakers in Washington, DC, that the vehicle could play a role in the Artemis Moon Program plans.
SpaceX has now launched two batches of 60 Starlink Internet satellites—one of which was experimental, and the second of which is expected to be operational as part of a low-Earth-orbit constellation. As early as January 6, the company anticipates launching its second batch of operational satellites, known as the Starlink-2 mission. The Starlink-3 and Starlink-4 missions may also launch in January.
At this kind of launch cadence, SpaceX should be ready to offer an initial, “bumpy” service by the middle of 2020, the company’s president and chief operating officer, Gwynne Shotwell, said in December. The company plans to offer “mature” service in 2021.
It will be interesting to see how SpaceX rolls out the service, which will necessitate “user terminals” to receive Internet signals from the orbiting satellites. This will be the first consumer-facing product that SpaceX offers and, if it’s successful, could eventually provide revenues to accelerate the development of Starship and its Super Heavy rocket.
Rapid, reusable launch
After peaking at 22 total 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 barring catastrophe, 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 in 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 that it can reuse the rocket’s first stage at least four times. One benefit of launching Starlink missions is that the company does not need to satisfy a customer that a particular Falcon 9 rocket is flight-worthy after several missions. It already proved this by re-using a payload fairing on the first launch of operational Starlink satellites in November 2019. Expect more firsts in terms of total first stage use and rapid turnarounds, with the dozen or more Starlink launches expected this year.
The company designed and built the Falcon 9 rocket to be a reusable, low-cost workhorse. This year, it may fully realize the booster’s potential.