SpaceX was founded in 2002 by Elon Musk with the ultimate mission to make life multiplanetary. The aerospace company runs around-the-clock operations to develop the spacecraft and technology that will enable humanity to venture across the Solar System. SpaceX had an incredible year filled with many achievements that the company has worked towards since its founding – from launching the first astronauts to space to performing the first high-altitude Starship test flight – Let’s look back at SpaceX’s greatest accomplishments of 2020!
SpaceX First Astronaut Launch – Demo-2 Mission
On May 30, 2020, SpaceX made history when it returned human spaceflight capabilities to the United States. SpaceX launched the first pair of NASA astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) under the agency’s Commercial Crew Program, which aims to perform frequent crewed flights to space from American soil. The historic mission, called Demo-2, launched NASA Astronauts Robert “Bob” Behnken and Douglas “Doug” Hurley aboard the Crew Dragon Endeavour spacecraft atop a Falcon 9 rocket that lifted off from Launch Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. NASA had not launched astronauts to the Space Station since the Space Shuttle was grounded in 2011. SpaceX ignited a new era in American spaceflight. After the successful launch Musk wholeheartedly stated–“…Getting astronauts to orbit after almost a decade, I think this is something that should really get people [closed fist to the chest] right in the heart - of anyone who has any spirit of exploration...[...] I am really quite overcome with emotion on this day, its kinda’ hard to talk frankly. Its been 18 years working towards this goal," he said. After 63 days at ISS, the Demo-2 mission ended with a successful Crew Dragon splashdown that demonstrated SpaceX’s spacecraft is reliable to transport humans safely to and from the Space Station. NASA certified Crew Dragon for routine operational missions.
SpaceX’s Second Crewed Flight – Crew-1 Mission
On November 15 this year, SpaceX launched its second crewed mission to the orbiting laboratory. The mission, known as Crew-1, is the first operational mission under NASA’s Commercial Crew Program that launched an international crew of four astronauts. Crew-1 lifted off atop a Falcon 9 rocket aboard the Crew Dragon Resilience spacecraft from Launch Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. After a 27-hour-long voyage, Crew Dragon Resilience successfully docked autonomously to the Space Station's Harmony module at 11:01 p.m. EST on November 16, carrying NASA astronauts Michael Hopkins, Victor Glover, Shannon Walker, and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) astronaut Soichi Noguchi. A plush toy of the beloved 'baby Yoda' character [formally named 'Grogu'] from Disney's Star Wars 'The Mandalorian' series, traveled alongside the astronauts as a zero gravity indicator. The inspiring mission is still ongoing; Crew-1 astronauts are expected to work at the station for six-months before returning aboard the spacecraft in 2021.
SpaceX’s Starship SN5 and SN6 ‘Hop’ Test Launches
SpaceX is developing the Starship launch vehicle at the South Texas Launch Facility in Boca Chica Beach, where multiple prototypes of the spacecraft are undergoing testing. The company aims to make flying stainless-steel vehicles routine. Each prototype is referred to by a Serial Number, SN. This year, Starship SN1, SN3, and SN4 exploded during pre-flight preparations, SN2 and SN7 served as proof test vehicles. On August 4th, 2020, SpaceX conducted Starship SN5’s debut test flight. The stainless-steel vehicle conducted a low-altitude "hop" test, it soared 150-meters into Boca Chica Beach’s sunny sky and landed flawlessly, powered by a single Raptor engine. The successful flight enabled engineers to push Starship’s development further. By September 3, just a month from launching SN5, SpaceX completed another low-altitude test flight of a twin Starship prototype in South Texas. The Starship SN6 test vehicle performed a similar flight, lifting off 150-meters and deployed a set of six legs to perform a controlled landing on a nearby pad. With two successful landings, SpaceX engineers gained confidence to push Starship’s development further and conducted the first high-altitude test flight in December this year.
SpaceX’s first high-altitude Starship SN8 ‘Belly Flop’ Test Flight
On December 9, 2020, SpaceX accomplished performing the first high-altitude test flight with the Starship SN8 prototype. Teams launched Starship SN8 approximately 50,000 feet (15-kilometers) into Boca Chica’s sky powered by a trio of Raptor engines. It is the first vehicle that lifts off to such heights with three engines. During the epic flight test SpaceX tested the vehicles aerodynamic flaps with an impressive ‘belly flop’ dive maneuver. The maneuver is important towards Starship’s development, it is how the spacecraft will move to enter a planet’s rough atmosphere before landing. The test flight lasted around seven minutes in which Starship used its aerodynamic flaps to glide itself down Boca Chica’s sky. SN8 was capable of reorienting itself to a vertical position to prepare for a landing, but upon landing the vehicle exploded. However, the test flight was measured by the completion of test objectives, “from how the vehicle’s three Raptor engines perform to the overall aerodynamic entry capabilities of the vehicle (including its body flaps) to how the vehicle manages propellant transition [...],” the company stated, “With a test such as this, success is not measured by completion of specific objectives but rather how much we can learn, which will inform and improve the probability of success in the future as SpaceX rapidly advances development of Starship.” Each Starship test in South Texas takes the company one step closer towards achieving its ambition to colonize Mars. Next year will be an exciting time for the spacecraft’s development. SpaceX targets to launch the first private passenger aboard Starship on a voyage around the Moon by 2023. We will see more epic test flights at Boca Chica in the years to come, all leading to Starship carrying the next humans that will set foot on the Moon and the first crew that will settle on Mars.
Featured Images Source: SpaceX/NASA
About the Author
Evelyn J. Arevalo joined Tesmanian in 2019 to cover news as a Space Journalist and SpaceX Starbase Texas Correspondent. Evelyn is specialized in rocketry and space exploration. The main topics she covers are SpaceX and NASA.