SpaceX’s 2020 ambitions tempered by 2019 outcomes

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WASHINGTON — SpaceX enters 2020 with ambitious launch, spacecraft and other plans, but those expectations are modulated by what that company achieved, and didn’t achieve, in 2019.

SpaceX is scheduled to perform its first launch of 2020 Jan. 6, when a Falcon 9 launches a third set of 60 Starlink satellites. That launch will be one of as many as four launches the company carries out in January, including two other Starlink missions and an in-flight abort test of the company’s Crew Dragon spacecraft, currently set for Jan. 11.

Deployment of the Starlink broadband constellation will be the core of the company’s launch business in 2020. Gwynne Shotwell, president and chief operating officer of SpaceX, said at the World Satellite Business Week conference in September that the company projects launching as many as 24 Starlink missions in 2020, placing enough satellites into orbit to make the system “economically viable,” in the words of company founder and chief executive Elon Musk prior to the first Starlink launch in May 2019.

That launch rate, along with missions for NASA, the U.S. Air Force, and commercial customers, including its new smallsat rideshare program, should allow the company to rebound from a slow 2019. While SpaceX performed 21 launches in 2018, it conducted only 13 launches in 2019, a decline of nearly 40%. That included a three-month gap in launches between August and November 2019, the longest hiatus since the pre-launch explosion of a Falcon 9 carrying the Amos-6 satellite in September 2016 that grounded the rocket for more than four months.

At the time of the World Satellite Business Week conference, SpaceX had performed 10 launches, and Shotwell said the company expected to perform seven to eight more through the end of the year, including as many as four Starlink missions. The company performed only three launches the rest of 2019, one of which for Starlink.

SpaceX said the lull in launches had nothing to do with the rocket itself but instead was caused by a lack of customers ready to launch, an issue linked to the doldrums in the commercial communications satellite market that have persisted for several years. “This is the first year that we are seeing that we are now ready to fly our customers before they are ready,” Shotwell remarked in September.

While Starlink will help boost SpaceX’s launch activity, that satellite program is not without its own challenges. While the company has done some initial testing of the system with the Defense Department, it has disclosed few details about when it will offer the system to consumers, including at what cost, as well as the availability of user terminals.

The satellites themselves face scrutiny given growing concerns about orbital debris, an issue highlighted when ESA’s Aeolus satellite maneuvered in early September to avoid a close approach to a Starlink satellite. SpaceX said a confluence of factors, including a bug in paging software used to alert satellite operators, caused that problem, and emphasized its use of autonomous systems to more efficiently avoid conjunctions.

Starlink has also raised the ire of astronomers, who complain that the satellites’ bright appearance in skies shortly after sunset and before sunrise can interfere with their observations. Shotwell said in December that one of the satellites on the next Starlink launch will have a coating intended to make it less reflective to test its effectiveness as well as ensure it does not affect the satellite’s performance.

Astronomers, though, aren’t yet convinced that will be effective. The issue will be the topic of a special session at the 235th Meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Honolulu Jan. 8, with presentations from astronomers as well as one SpaceX executive, Patricia Cooper.

SpaceX’s Starship Mark 1 vehicle at the company’s Boca Chica, Texas, site in September. At the time the company said it would perform a suborbital test flight in one to two months, but instead was damaged in a pressurization test in November. Credit: SpaceNews/Jeff Foust

Starship and commercial crew

SpaceX entered 2019 expecting to start flying astronauts to the International Space Station on its Crew Dragon spacecraft before the end of the year. That goal was supported by the successful uncrewed test flight of the spacecraft, a mission called Demo-1, in March.

However, that same spacecraft was destroyed in April during preparations for a static-fire test of its SuperDraco abort thrusters, a key test before it was to be used on an in-flight abort test then planned for the summer. The investigation into the accident, along with changes to the design of the spacecraft’s parachutes after a drop test failure in April, ruled out any chance of a crewed mission in 2019.

SpaceX is optimistic that, should the in-flight abort test this month be successful, it can quickly be ready for the Demo-2 crewed test flight this year. “Crew Dragon should be physically ready & at the Cape in Feb, but completing all safety reviews will probably take a few more months,” Musk tweeted Dec. 29.

Musk tweeted that during a visit to the company’s facility in Boca Chica, Texas, where SpaceX is developing the company’s next-generation launch vehicle, Starship. SpaceX had hoped to start test flights of Starship in 2019, and did perform a short, low-altitude test flight of a prototype called Starhopper there in August.

At a media event at Boca Chica in September, Musk showed off the first full-scale Starship prototype, called Starship Mark 1. “This thing is going to take off, fly to 65,000 feet, about 20 kilometers, and come back and land, in about one or two months,” he said.

Instead, the vehicle was seriously damaged during a Nov. 20 pressurization test. After the incident, SpaceX said that the “decision had already been made to not fly this test article,” the first time the company revealed that the Starship Mark 1 would, in fact, not fly.

SpaceX, which has also recently curtailed development of a separate Starship Mark 2 prototype in Florida, is now focused on the next Starship prototype, which Musk said in a recent tweet was now called Starship SN1 rather than Starship Mark 3. Musk was in Boca Chica to oversee work on a tank dome for the vehicle, which he described as the “most difficult part of the primary structure.”

“Flight is hopefully 2 to 3 months away,” he said of the development of Starship SN1 in a Dec. 27 tweet. It’s not clear if that timeline refers to solely completion of the vehicle, or also incorporates the required launch license or experimental permit from the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation, a process that can take months.

Musk alluded to overall delays in the development of Starship in another tweet by invoking an ancient Greek philosophical conundrum. “New technology development schedules tend to exhibit a version of Zeno’s Paradox — at any given point, you’re halfway there.”