2021 has potential for even more good news. Here’s just some of what could happen in the new year.
After two successful flights carrying astronauts to the International Space Station, SpaceX is set to do it again this year. Crew-2, its second fully operational mission, is scheduled to launch a quartet of astronauts from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida in the spring. Then, in the fall, the company is set to launch Crew-3.
Not since the space shuttle has NASA had routine flights to the space station from U.S. soil. If all goes well, SpaceX will become the shuttle’s successor, filling a major gap in America’s spaceflight program in a coming-of-age moment for what was once a spunky start-up.
Late in the year, SpaceX also is planning to fly a mission for Axiom Space, a Houston-based company that has purchased a trip to the International Space Station for a crew of four. Michael López-Alegría, a former NASA astronaut who now works for Axiom, would accompany three private citizens for the mission, among them Eytan Stibbe, an Israeli former fighter pilot. Axiom is expected to announce the other two tourists sometime in the future.
Flying humans on its Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft is only part of what’s on tap for SpaceX. The company continues to test its Starship spacecraft, a next-generation vehicle that looks like a flying grain silo but, Musk hopes, will one day fly people to Mars.
NASA hopes it will be successful. The space agency is investing $135 million in Starship as part of its attempt to return astronauts to the moon. Musk, whose timelines are usually wildly ambitious, has said he hopes the spacecraft will be able to achieve orbit in 2021.
The company is also pressing ahead with another outrageously difficult project — a plan to flood Earth orbit with thousands of satellites that would beam Internet signals to ground stations, connecting rural areas to broadband.
In 2020, SpaceX took some major strides toward that goal and has already launched more than 16 batches of the satellites, allowing it to begin a pilot program. More are scheduled to be hoisted in 2021, marking SpaceX’s transformation from a purely rocket company to an Internet service provider after being awarded $886 million from the Federal Communications Commission for the endeavor.
It’s now working to redo the test mission — no astronauts on board — at the end of March.
Given its past problems, Boeing’s upcoming test flight has to be successful. The company holds a contract from NASA to fly its astronauts to the space station. But before the space agency will allow its astronauts on Boeing’s spacecraft, the company has to prove it can fly safely on its own. Another failure will do more damage to a company reeling from a string of failures, including the two fatal crashes of its 737 Max airplane that killed 346 people.
Boeing is well aware of this, which is why it’s been proceeding so deliberately. The mission patch for the flight, known…