From NASA to SpaceX, these are the milestones in spaceflight to track in 2021

With a very eventful year in the wraps, we expect a lot of companies to make big moves in space this year. Across the decade, many startups have worked tirelessly to get their business on the ground by developing new launchers and spacecraft to disrupt the industry. As we look to the year ahead, a major theme in 2021 will be the ultimate tests of many of these new advancements in space. These are the stories we’re following throughout the year:

Launches

Last year we saw the debut of two new launch systems, LauncherOne from Virgin Orbit and Astra’s Rocket. This year we expect to see more from space vehicles arrive on the scene.

Reaching Orbit

  • We expect Astra to launch a few times this year. This year Astra should reach orbit, something they just missed on their final launch of 2020.
  • Virgin Orbit is planning their Demo 2 mission in the coming weeks after an unsuccessful attempt to reach orbit during their first launch attempt. Now they have taken what they have learned and will put it to test.

More Debut Launch Systems

  • Firefly’s first flight-ready Alpha rocket is out in California awaiting its first launch. If they can be successful in reaching orbit on their first mission, serious competition to Rocket Lab and SpaceX’s rideshare program could begin to show.
  • For years, ULA has been developing their Vulcan launcher to replace their aging Atlas V and Delta IV launchers. With the majority of flight testing complete, we should see their first launch carrying a payload to the Moon this year.
  • Blue Origin still has the goal to launch their first New Glenn rocket within 2021, with news that their first BE-4 flight-ready BE-4 engines will be delivered around the beginning of this year to ULA. That might mean an increase in the production of their first orbital rocket out of their factory in Titusville.
  • While Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket has already been operational, we expect the debut of their LC-2 pad at Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia at the beginning of 2021.

Suborbital Flights

  • Blue Origin’s New Shepherd didn’t have a busy year in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but we should still see more flights this year. NS-14 should be flying in the beginning of this year, and we expect more to follow with hopes to see their first crewed flight by the end of this year.
  • Virgin Galactic was also hit hard by the pandemic, having to shut down a lot of their operations at their site at Spaceport America in New Mexico. After an aborted launch attempt last December, they have the goal to finish their test flights, ending testing with a flight of their founder Richard Branson, to finally start commercial flights.

SpaceX

SpaceX had a stellar 2020. They test flew their first Starship prototypes, expanded Starlink satellite internet to allow for a beta to start, and launched their first crewed flight for NASA to the space station.

  • We plan to see a lot more Starship flights this year from SN9, SN10, and possibly even SN11 as SpaceX increases its production and testing of its prototype Starship spacecraft.
  • We are seeing sections of the first Superheavy booster down in Boca Chica, and Elon Musk has stated the goal that they want to launch the first Starship into orbit by the end of 2021. This means Superheavy booster BN1 needs to be ready to fly this year.
  • 2020 saw a total of zero Falcon Heavy launches, but 2021 has the chance to see three or four of the world’s most powerful rocket launch this year. The first one is coming no earlier than April.
  • If anything is guaranteed, it would be more Starlink launches to take place. Starlink should be epanding their coverage further south and hopefully to their beta program.

United Launch Alliance

The best way to describe ULA’s 2020 is “ULA did ULA things” as in launching the country’s most important and expensive defense and science payloads including Solar Orbiter, Mars 2020, AEHF-6, and NROL-44.

  • While they wait for their Vulcan rocket to come online, ULA still has several Atlas launches this year. Launching important defense payloads, key NASA science missions, and for the Commercial Crew program, there is plenty to keep them busy this year.
  • Only a few Delta IV Heavy launches remain before its retirement, and another one is planned for this year from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. ULA made modifications to the pad similar to what they had to make on the east coast after the rough NROL-44 launch campaign, hopefully making this one much smoother.

NASA

NASA finally got their Commercial Crew program off the ground in 2020, quite literally, with the launch of DM-2 and Crew-1 from SpaceX. Their newest Mars rover is on its way to the Red Planet, and for the first time since Apollo there is a Human Landing System in development for the Moon.

Commercial Crew and Cargo

  • SpaceX’s Crew-1 is expected back to Earth in March or April around the same time they plan to launch Crew-2 followed by Crew-3 later in the year.
  • Boeing is planning on flying their Orbital Flight Test 2 mission this spring after spending all of last year fixing and retesting their Starliner spacecraft following the first OFT mission back in 2019. If successful, we could see the crewed flight test this year and crew assignments for the first operational flight by Boeing.
  • On the cargo side, both Northrop Grumman and SpaceX continued to deliver cargo to the station without issue in 2020. This year we might see the test flight of the newest provider Sierra Nevada Corporation and their DreamChaser spaceplane launch on top of a Vulcan rocket.

Artemis Program

  • Development of prototypes and mockups of NASA’s Human Landing System continue, and sometime this year NASA will choose the design(s) it will use.
  • NASA has been working on their Space Launch System longer than any other commercial launch provider, and finally we should see major milestones this year. With the Green Run hot fire test happing in the next few weeks, NASA looks strong to at least have the fully stacked Artemis-1 SLS on the pad if not launching by the end of this year.

Key Science Missions

  • Perseverance and its helicopter Ingenuity are slated to land on Mars on February 18, bringing the number of active NASA rovers on Mars back up to two after the loss of Opportunity back in 2019. This will also mark the beginning of the first sample return mission from another planet.
  • Currently, the James Webb Space Telescope is planned to launch on an Ariane 5 later this year. Originally supposed to launch sooner, it was pushed back to allow for more testing. This is good; test as much as needed, because once this mission is launched, we cannot go fix it like Hubble.

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