3. The commercial spaceflight scene heats up
On May 30, 2020, two astronauts launched to the International Space Station (ISS) aboard SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule. Since then, crewed trips via SpaceX’s craft have become routine. In 2020 and 2021, the company sent three crews and a total of 12 more astronauts to the ISS, successfully reusing a Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon capsule to do so. Crew Dragon has now firmly reestablished NASA’s ability to put people in orbit without relying on its Russian partners.
And NASA seems keen to expand its relationship with SpaceX. On April 16, the agency announced its selection of SpaceX’s Human Landing System (HLS) Starship to return humans to the Moon via the Artemis program. NASA had been widely expected to award contracts to two companies to nurture the growing industry and foster competition. Instead, SpaceX received the sole contract, worth $2.89 billion, beating out its two competitors, Dynetics and Blue Origin, who had also been working with NASA to develop crewed lunar landing craft.
Some didn’t agree with the choice: On Aug. 13, Blue Origin filed a lawsuit in the Court of Federal Claims, suing NASA over its evaluation and choice to award a single company the entire contract. On Aug. 19, NASA paused development of SpaceX’s lander to allow for litigation. The suit came after Blue Origins and Dynetics had filed a formal complaint with the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), with the GAO on July 30 releasing a statement that “NASA did not violate procurement law or regulation” in awarding a single contract to SpaceX, and the agency’s assessment of all three companies’ proposals was fair. And on Nov. 4, the court ruled against Blue Origin and NASA announced it would resume work with SpaceX on the HLS Starship.
Meanwhile, the commercial space race continued to heat up in other ways. On July 11, Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity carried the company’s founder, Richard Branson, and five others to an altitude of 53 miles (86 kilometers), crossing the threshold previously required to reach space and earn commercial astronaut wings from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). However, that same day, the FAA changed its requirements to receive commercial astronaut wings. The new guidelines added a requirement that crew members perform “activities during flight that were essential to public safety, or contributed to human space flight safety.”
Less than two weeks later, on July 20, Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket blasted off with four passengers, including company founder and former Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and Mercury 13 member Wally Funk. They reached an altitude of 66 miles (107 km) — above the 62-mile-high (100 km) Kármán line, internationally recognized as the boundary of space.
Then, late on Sept. 15 Eastern time, the Inspiration4 mission launched four civilians into orbit aboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule. The crew spent three days in space before splashing down in the Atlantic Ocean. Although operated by SpaceX, the mission was funded by Jared Isaacman, CEO of Shift4 Payments.
All three trips are milestones on the path to a bona fide space tourism industry. With so much progress last year and more on the horizon, commercial spaceflight will surely remain an area to watch.
China’s Space Program
Commercial companies weren’t the only ones reaching for the skies. The China National Space Administration (CNSA) also took several major steps forward in terms of human spaceflight last year.
On April 29 Beijing time, CNSA launched the initial component of its first permanent space station, Tiangong. The core capsule, called Tianhe (meaning “harmony of heavens”), will serve as a residence and control center for orbiting astronauts, as well as a scientific laboratory.
But the story didn’t end there. The Long March 5B rocket that lofted the station’s capsule into space fell back to Earth May 9 (also Beijing time) in an uncontrolled reentry, tumbling into the Indian Ocean. Despite the rocket’s harmless demise, the event drew criticism over CNSA’s lack of foreknowledge coupled with the inability to plan where the debris would fall. The single previous flight of a Long March 5B rocket ended with debris reportedly impacting villages in the Ivory Coast in 2020.
Also on April 29, CNSA and Roscosmos released a joint statement “acknowledging mutual interest in the construction of the International Lunar Research Station (ILRS) for the peaceful exploration and use of the Moon.” A document released June 16 gives an initial timeline for construction of the station between 2026 and 2035, with crewed landings beginning in 2036.
On June 17, CNSA’s Shenzhou 12 mission launched, carrying three astronauts to the Tianhe module in China’s seventh crewed spaceflight. During their stay, the crew completed the country’s second-ever spacewalk.
China is expected to maintain its momentum through 2022 as well. Two additional space station modules will complete the Tiangong station this year, while crewed Shenzhou launches are also planned to continue.