But 2021 is expected to be even bigger for the booming industry, as ruling giants like SpaceX continue to pursue futuristic technologies – from Mars rockets to space internet services and alien tourism.
Here is what the private sector planned for space next year.
SpaceX made history when the Crew Dragon spacecraft proved that it could transport NASA astronauts to the International Space Station, marking the first time in SpaceX’s 18-year history when the company put humans into space. It was also the culmination of a ten-year partnership with NASA to return human spaceflight capabilities to the United States.
SpaceX is expected to do those routes. Another group of astronauts is expected to take flight aboard a Dragon Crew in the spring of 2021, and yet another Crew Dragon flight could be launched next fall.
The ability to fly its own astronauts after spending nearly a decade relying on Russian spacecraft to put American astronauts into space is a huge deal for NASA. The space agency says it will now be able to keep the space station fully equipped, allowing a dramatic boost in the amount of research astronauts are able to conduct aboard the ISS.
Next year, Boeing could add another vehicle to the arsenal of spacecraft worthy of people in the United States. The company plans to make the first manned flight of its Starliner vehicle, which is being developed under the same NASA program as SpaceX’s Crew Dragon.
Boeing’s starliner, which looks similar to the Dragon of the SpaceX crew, will first have to do a flight test again that the company tried to perform a year ago. Boeing says it is targeting March 29 for the second attempt and – if all goes well, Starliner’s first manned launch could begin a few months later.
Both the Boeing spacecraft and SpaceX are privately owned under the terms of the development agreement they signed with NASA, which means both companies will have the option to sell seats aboard their spacecraft to anyone who can afford the price of about $ 50 million on the spot.
SpaceX has already signed an agreement with Axiom, a startup founded by former NASA administrator Michael Suffredini, to take a group of “private astronauts” to the ISS aboard a Crew Dragon in the second half of 2021.
Axiom confirmed two of the crew members who will be on that flight: Michael Lopez-Alegria, a former NASA astronaut and veteran of three spacecraft missions that will fly as a private citizen, and Eytan Stibbe, a former Israeli fighter pilot and wealthy investor. which is supposed to finance its own journey.
Suborbital joy walks
Two billionaire-backed businesses – Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origins – are developing small rocket vehicles to send rich thrill-seekers on short trips into the upper atmosphere.
Virgin Galactic, which went public through a reverse merger in 2019, has moved to its new luxury space port in New Mexico and is preparing to open for business as soon as next year. Branson intends to be among the first passengers aboard the supersonic spacecraft the company has spent building and testing over the past two decades. A recent test flight of that vehicle was interrupted due to an engine problem, but Virgin Galactic still hopes to complete its final tests in the next few months.
However, Blue Origin has not yet announced the price of the tickets or when it intends to start selling them.
Virgin Galactic, on the other hand, sold over 600 tickets at prices between $ 200,000 and $ 250,000. The company also plans to reopen ticket sales soon, although executives have warned that prices will rise.
ULA goes to the moon, Bezos’ orbital rocket takes flight
In the field of rocket launch, SpaceX could face more rigorous competition than ever next year. Two companies – United Launch Alliance, a Lockheed Martin-Boeing and Blue Origin joint venture – plan to introduce two new massive launch vehicles that aim to compete with SpaceX’s Falcon missiles in terms of power and launch price.
Blue Origin, ULA and SpaceX missiles are expected to fight for profitable government launch contracts for years to come. The U.S. military, for example, recently selected SpaceX and ULA for nearly $ 1 billion in contracts. Blue Origin lost in that round, but expects to continue to compete for future missions.
For years, a group of young companies have been hoping to develop small rockets – a fraction the size of SpaceX’s Falcon missiles – that can cheaply launch new satellites into space on a regular basis. This could open up new business opportunities, according to Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and investors.
Rocket Lab is the only company that has so far launched a rocket into space and launched more than a dozen successful missions in the last two years.
But 2021 may be the year when new players finally enter the scene.
Astra, based in Alameda, California, has already launched two test launches and aims to launch its first rocket into orbit next year. Relativity in Los Angeles, which is working on 3D printing of its missiles, plans to launch it next fall. And Texas-based Firefly can try to put the 95-meter-high Alpha rocket on a launch pad in the next few months.
Financing the future
It is not clear how many small rocket launch vehicles the business sector actually needs. But more than 100 startups are struggling to join the Rocket Lab – and that’s certainly too many, Ann Kim, director of frontier technology at Silicon Valley Bank, told CNN Business.
2021 could be a year in which many of these companies start merging or giving up business.
Venture capital funds have tens of billions to be deployed in 2021, according to Kim.
But investors are likely to put their money into more data and software-focused companies than companies that hope to enter the expensive and risky hardware business. Right now, the industry has chosen its leaders for those who believe investors will have viable missile and satellite businesses, Kim said.
SpaceX: Starship and Starlink
SpaceX, the poster child of the commercial space age, has two major projects that will have a lot of action in 2021: Starship – a massive rocket that CEO Elon Musk hopes to put on Mars – and Starlink, a swarm of satellites low orbit of Earth that SpaceX intends to use to transmit the Internet to homes in space.
SpaceX has already deployed approximately 1,000 satellites to launch its Starlink network, and the company will continue to add more as it completes a beta testing program. It could become commercially available early next year.
Starship, the Mars rocket, is still in its very early stages of development. But SpaceX has managed to attract a lot of public interest in the development process. The company built several large steel rocket bodies and placed them on a launch pad to perform larger and larger test flights.
Musk, who founded SpaceX to colonize Mars, promises to keep the action going until 2021.