Almost everyone who has lived through last year will agree; 2020 was a truly shocking year, thanks in no large part to a very particular virus. This is no less true than for the aviation industry, which has had to deal with lockdowns unprecedented in modern history, and unseen in the age of globalisation. However, in contrast to it’s aerial counterpart, space exploration has experienced a tremendous year of progress, with great progress being made around the world.
2020 was the year of sampling missions; China’s Chang’e 5 successfully returned samples from the Moon (for the first time since Luna 24 in 1976), Japan’s Hayabusa2 landed on Earth with samples of asteroid 162173 Ryugu and NASA’s Osiris-REx collected pieces of asteroid Bennu (expected to be returned in 2023). These samples will not only allow for a greater understanding of our solar system, and our origins, but will provide critical information for the eventual exploitation of in-space resources.
Another milestone made in 2020 was the US’ return to crewed spaceflight by Demo-2, which was swiftly followed by Crew-1; this ended a 9-year-long moratorium on crewed spaceflight (the longest ever the US has experienced in the space age). This ends the International Space Station’s reliance on one spacecraft (the Russian Soyuz) for crewed transportation, thus making human presence in space more resilient, and allowing for more crew onboard the space station at once.
The fact that these milestones were achieved by commercial spacecraft is an arguably greater milestone; the substantial cost savings achieved by contracting the spacecraft design out to commercial entities are undeniable, and already serve as a precedent for a number of new NASA initiatives (which will be detailed upon below). The Commercial Crew Program’s ‘victor’, SpaceX, has also shown how a more hardware-rich testing scheme, as well as a bold approach to achieving its goals, can beat far larger companies (namely ULA) which have dominated space travel for decades by a wide margin.
The experience gained by SpaceX in it’s creation of the Dragon 2 will also no doubt be useful for the company’s Mars ambitions. The Starship performed three test flights this year, with two successful 150m hops, before an amazing 15km test crashed after a spectacular ‘skydiver’ manoeuvre. While SpaceX’s insanely ambitious goals for this year were not totally met, the establishment of a production line for spacecraft (which was not initially planned) which can turn out one Starship a month is arguably a far more important achievement than flashy prototypes. Starship SN9, the successor to the fallen SN8, is already on the launch pad preparing for an even higher test flight, thus lending credence to SpaceX 2iC Gwynne Shotwell’s declaration that Starship will enter orbit this year. While SpaceX is known for its delays in reaching goals, and the first crewed Starship flight to Mars has likely been pushed back to 2026 (from 2024, as Mars transfer window come roughly every 26 months), this is still an extraordinary rate of progress for a company which has existed for only 18 years.
The Artemis Program also received a large boost in 2020 with the Human Landing System contracts being granted to three companies: SpaceX, the ‘National team’ (made up of Blue Origin, Lockheed Martin, Draper and Northrup grumman) and Dynetics (with collaboration from Sierra Nevada). The scale of these proposals varied wildly, with SpaceX proposing a ‘Lunar Starship’ to Dynetics’ relatively small ALPACA lander. While appropriate funding has yet to be allocated to the construction of these vessels beyond design and initial mock-ups, this is still greater progress than has been made in the past few decades, and the 2024 deadline of Artemis still remains feasible (if unlikely to be met).
As always, the Space Launch System has lumbered towards launch with characteristic delays. The hot test that was supposed to take place during mid-2020 has instead been delayed to January 2021 at the earliest, due to hurricanes, technical issues and the pandemic. Thus, the launch of Artemis 1, supposed to take place in November 202, will almost certainly take place in 2022. The scale of issues that will manifest during the hot test of SLS is unknown, however, it is a virtual guaranteed in a project that is distributed amongst all 50 states.
In addition, the coronavirus pandemic played a role in delaying the ESA/Roscosmos collaboration of ExoMars, with the Rosalind Franklin lander being delayed to 2022 (the next available launch window). The border closures in the EU, combined with repeated parachute issues, unfortunately conspired to force a member out of the 2020 ‘Mars Armada’. However, this delay will hopefully mean that ExoMars will be able to launch and land safely in a couple of years, delivering the first fully Mars successful landings for both the European Space Agency and Russia (the latter of which has been cursed with bad luck for almost 50 years).
Ultimately, while 2020 shall go down as a year of sadness, isolation and fear, the feats that were accomplished within it’s realm will hopefully be remembered as the great strides they were. The achievements of the past year will be essential for the coming years, and as 2021 begins, the outlook appears fantastic, with the world striving for orbit, the Moon and Mars itself.
Featured image courtesy of NASA