OPINION: 2019 – Numbers and Names
The past year has been a bit of a roller-coaster ride in terms of space exploration and utilization. But as the final days of 2019 came to a close, it’s clear that the last twelve months were defined by cold hard numbers.
By the Numbers
China launched 34 rockets in 2019, with the predominant launch vehicles used by the communist nation being those in the Long March family (2C, 2D, 3B, 3C, 4B, 4C, 6, 11 and 11H). Russia completed 21 launches of Soyuz, Proton and Rokot boosters). India completed nine launches (primarily PSLV, GSLV and Safir rockets).
In the United States, SpaceX launched 13 Falcon 9 or Falcon Heavy rockets in the past twelve months. Of the 16 first stage “cores” that attempted landings either back on terra firma or on one of the company’s ASDS only one was unsuccessful. United Launch Alliance launched two Atlas V and three Delta IV (either the Heavy or Medium versions of the rocket). Northrop Grumman also completed two Antares and one Pegasus XL launch.
There were several test flights carried out as well, such as Boeing’s November Pad Abort Test and Northrop Grumman’s Ascent Abort Test.
Foreign space flight efforts gained substantial ground in 2019 as NASA worked to regain lost capabilities. As new rockets entered into service, older ones, such as the Rockot were phased out.
2019 was certainly a year of loss. On April 15, Owen K Garriott, an astronaut with an amazing 1,427 hours on orbit died. Garriott served as the pilot on the Skylab 3 mission in 1973. He would go on to serve as Mission Specialist 1 on STS-9 (on Columbia), the first flight of the Spacelab 1 module.
Three months later, on July 22, Christopher Columbus Kraft Jr. passed away at the age of 95. Kraft was the man who defined how NASA’s Mission Control conducted manned space flight operations. The professional competence that paved the way to Moon was founded by Christopher Kraft.
As noted, several long-serving boosters flew for the final time in 2019.
The Medium variant of United Launch Alliance’s Delta IV rocket concluded a 17 year run at 9:06 a.m. EDT (13:06 GMT) on Aug. 22, 2019.
Half a world away, Russia’s Rockot booster conducted its final flight on Friday, Dec. 27 delivering a trio of Gonets satellites in late December.
What’s in a Name?
As you might imagine, the conclusion of a rocket’s career is something planned for well in advance. Almost all elements of missions into space are. The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry. No matter how carefully a project is planned, something may still go wrong with it. Enter Boeing’s first Orbital Flight Test which was flown on Dec. 20.
While Boeing and NASA might have spoken about all that was accomplished on the mission, the simple fact is – OFT-1 was a failure. Its mission objectives were detailed by NASA as follows: “to dock with the International Space Station and prove its autonomous mission capability. Its mission was to demonstrate on-orbit operation of Starliner’s systems, including avionics, docking system, communications/telemetry systems, environmental control systems, solar arrays and electrical power systems, and the propulsion system.
After it was clear much of that wasn’t going to happen, Boeing and the Space Agency focused on the aspects that they were able to check out, propulsion, communications, environmental control and communications. To make it seem like the mission was even more of a success its status as the “first crew-rated capsule to land on the ground” was heightened and much praise was showered on its parachute systems and airbags.
And then the OFT-1 Starliner failure went from bad to farce.
Sunita Williams is scheduled to fly on the first operational flight of Boeing’s Starliner capsule (currently slated to take place in late 2020). She dubbed the spacecraft “Calypso.” Given “Calypso” can trace its origins to words such as “conceal” or “deceive” the spacecraft’s new moniker doesn’t inspire confidence. Worse still, the name is tied to “hell” in English.
In The Odyssey the nymph Calypso held Odysseus as her prisoner, preventing him from returning home. Let’s hope the astronauts who fly on Starliner don’t end up prisoners in the spacecraft and end up in their very own Greek tragedy.
Shortly after the end of the OFT-1 debacle, Boeing’s CEO, Dennis Muilenburg, was canned and J. Michael Luttig Counselor and Senior Advisor to the Boeing Board of Directors began his “long-considered” retirement. While likely tied to the 737 MAX debacle that has plagued the company, Starliner’s failure helped open the door a little wider for these and other high-profile Boeing representatives to depart. If the company is wise, it will keep it open and allow the company’s current public and media relations staff to join Muilenburg and Luttig. Allowing such base ignorance to be publicly announced after their product gave the company yet another black eye is a clear example of gross incompetence.
Things didn’t go as planned for SpaceX either. The “NewSpace” partner working with NASA to send crews to the International Space Station under the agency’s $6.8 billion Commercial Crew Program had its own problems. On April 20, the Crew Dragon spacecraft that launched to, successfully docked with and returned from the International Space Station on March 2 – exploded on the pad as it was being prepared for its next mission.
With both of the companies the agency awarded contracts to encountering “off nominal” situations, NASA is placed in a less-than favorable position. At present, NASA is paying more than $70 million per seat to Russia for access to the International Space Station, an outpost that wouldn’t exist if the agency hadn’t built it. Segments of the station have been in orbit for 21 years and the orbiting lab is scheduled to be decommissioned as soon as 2028.
The Shuttle Program was actually planned as a component of a two-part project, the Shuttle and a Space Station. NASA was given enough funding for one. They chose the Shuttle which was now a spacecraft with no place to travel to. In the 90s the Shuttle finally had a place to go, the International Space Station. But with the loss of Space Shuttle Columbia on STS-107, it was announced that the Shuttle would be retired and in 2011 it was. The Space Agency is now struggling to regain the ability to send astronauts to the ISS.
The Commercial Crew Program is behind schedule and the period of time when it can provide access to the outpost is far less than hoped.
Not all of NASA’s silver linings were marred by dark clouds in 2019. The New Horizons spacecraft expanded humanity’s knowledge of the Kuiper Belt. The Mars Science Laboratory rover, Curiosity, celebrated seven years surveying Gale Crater on the Red Planet. And the agency’s newest rover, Mars 2020, looks to be on schedule for its date with the launch pad.
WIll 2020 be as eventful as 2019? Time will tell.
The views expressed above are solely those of the writer and don’t necessarily reflect the views of SpaceFlight Insider
Jason Rhian spent several years honing his skills with internships at NASA, the National Space Society and other organizations. He has provided content for outlets such as: Aviation Week & Space Technology, Space.com, The Mars Society and Universe Today.