It’s been a busy year for spaceflight — the busiest ever, in fact. This fall, space companies once again broke the record for successful orbital launches in a single year with 2023’s 180th flight — Starlink satellites sent up by SpaceX on November 22, according to Ars Technica. The number has since climbed to 200.
That pace has been driven in no small part by Elon Musk’s aerospace venture, which set a goal of hitting 100 launches in 2023 and is nearly there, with 92 as of December 7. Private companies have become key players in the new space race, not only vying to serve as launch providers for science and communications missions but also ushering in the era of space tourism (for anyone rich enough to nab a ticket). But spaceflight is hard, especially if you’re trying to change the game with design innovations, and for all the wins in 2023, there have been plenty of hiccups. Here’s a look at how some of the leading private space companies made out this year.
SpaceX seemingly didn’t stop once to catch its breath in 2023. The company managed a record-setting run of orbital launches with its reusable Falcon 9 and partially reusable Falcon Heavy rockets, with the lion’s share dedicated to delivering its Starlink internet satellites to orbit (there are now more than 5,000 of them circling Earth). SpaceX also delivered payloads for other entities, including NASA, and carried out multiple crewed flights with its Dragon capsule. Four astronauts arrived at the International Space Station in March aboard a Crew Dragon, and Axiom Space contracted SpaceX for a private astronaut mission that flew to the ISS in May.
As for its experimental Starship flights, things were expectedly a bit more volatile. Starship is the biggest and most powerful launch vehicle built to date, and is designed to support future human spaceflight missions, including NASA’s return to the moon as soon as 2025. The spacecraft itself is 165 feet tall, and when stacked on top of the Super Heavy rocket, the two tower at a combined 397 feet. Both Starship and Super Heavy are planned to be fully reusable. It’s all still in development, and after a few years of suborbital flight tests without Super Heavy — Starship has six of its own Raptor engines that enable flight — the vehicle advanced to orbital tests in 2023.
SpaceX launched Starship for the first time in an integrated flight with its Super Heavy rocket on April 20, and there were problems from the moment liftoff began. Multiple engines failed, and when Starship started its flip maneuver that allows for stage separation about 3 minutes in, it just kept spinning. It was eventually given the command to self-destruct, ending the test with an explosion.
The launch left behind a lot of damage on the ground, too, tearing up the launchpad at SpaceX’s Boca Chica test site, creating a sizable crater and starting a 3.5 acre fire on the grounds of a protected wildlife refuge. But for SpaceX, it was still considered a success — its goal was just to clear the tower. Starship made it to an altitude of about 24 miles before it got caught in that uncontrolled spin. Nevertheless, the Federal Aviation Administration grounded Starship after the destructive test, and ordered the company to complete dozens of corrective actions before it could fly again.
Starship did fly again before the end of 2023, and again Starship exploded. This time, though, Starship officially made it to space, climbing to about 92 miles above Earth. It also performed SpaceX’s first attempt at hot staging — where the upper stage begins to fire its engines while still attached to its lower stage — and was able to complete separation from the Super Heavy booster. It fell well short of the planned 90-minute flight, lasting only around eight minutes, but it demonstrated hot staging was possible.
Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin had a strong run between late 2021 and 2022 with its reusable New Shepard suborbital booster and capsule, completing six crewed flights to the edge of space following years of tests and payload missions for industry clients including NASA. But in September 2022, one of its rockets suffered a main engine failure during an uncrewed research mission, and New Shepard spent a subsequent 15 months grounded.
After investigations into the cause of the event, the company’s then-CEO Bob Smith — who is stepping down in the new year — said in June 2023 that New Shepard would again “be ready to go fly within the next few weeks” pending FAA approval. The FAA closed its investigation at the end of September and gave Blue Origin 21 corrective actions to complete before New Shepard could take to the skies again. Around that time, Ars Technica reported that sources close to the matter said Blue Origin was targeting an October return to flight, but that window came and went with no liftoff or further updates. While it was starting to look like Blue Origin wouldn’t fly at all in 2023, the company finally announced New Shepard’s return in mid-December, and pulled off a successful suborbital payload flight on December 19.
It’s mostly been crickets for Blue Origin’s still-in-development New Glenn, as the company races to get it ready for its debut. New Glenn, a partially reusable heavy lift vehicle, is expected to make its inaugural flight sometime in 2024. It’s already been tapped by NASA to send a pair of small satellites to Mars later that year, but the timeline keeps slipping. It was originally supposed to launch in 2020, but was later rescheduled to 2021, then 2022 and now 2024. The company shared some photos of the rocket’s first and second stage being assembled at its Florida factory over the summer, and confirmed to the Orlando Sentinel that it was still shooting for next year.
Blue Origin has also been busy building engines for another launch provider, United Launch Alliance, which will be used for ULA’s heavy-lift Vulcan Centaur rocket. Both New Glenn and Vulcan will rely on Blue Origin’s BE-4 engine, and have faced delays tied to its development. Most recently, in July, CNBC reported that one of these engines exploded during testing at Blue Origin’s West Texas facility.
United Launch Alliance
ULA had a quiet year as well, carrying out only three launches in 2023 with its Atlas V and Delta IV Heavy rockets — down from eight the year before. Both rockets are in the process of winding down their operations ahead of their official retirement. Delta IV Heavy has just one flight left, which is expected to take place in 2024, and all of Atlas V’s remaining flights have been sold and scheduled out over the next several years. One of ULA’s few 2023 launches was the first flight in its partnership with Amazon, and an Atlas V rocket successfully delivered two of the company’s prototype Project Kuiper internet satellites to orbit.
Most of ULA’s attention right now is focused on putting the final touches on Vulcan ahead of its maiden flight. Vulcan has been in development for roughly a decade, and it, too, has faced years of delays. There was some hope it would finally launch in the first half of 2023, with the company targeting liftoff in May, but after the explosion of a Centaur upper stage during tests, it pushed this target to the end of the year. In October, ULA had said it was planning to launch Vulcan for the first time on Christmas Eve from Cape Canaveral, Florida. But, in an update posted this week, the company confirmed Vulcan wouldn’t be flying in 2023 after all.
Following a successful WDR, the launch of ULA’s first #VulcanRocket flight test and #Cert1 mission is planned for Jan. 8, 2024, pending range approval. The Vulcan VC2S rocket will launch from SLC-41 from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Florida. https://t.co/xFQoT0042V pic.twitter.com/gkHOBFF6UT
— ULA (@ulalaunch) December 14, 2023
The rocket completed some critical tests in December, and is now scheduled to fly on January 8, 2024. Vulcan’s first flight, dubbed Certification-1, will send Astrobotic’s Peregrine lunar lander to the moon. Once Vulcan is in operation, ULA will start ramping up flights again. It’s already got a contract with Amazon for 38 Project Kuiper launches on Vulcan. It just needs to get off the ground first.
Over the last few years, Rocket Lab has risen as a company to watch in the launch sector. In the first few months of 2023, it seemed on track to beat its 2022 record of nine orbital launches in one year with its Electron rocket. The company told SpaceFlight Now it was targeting 15 launches this time around. It made it to seven by the end of August, but in September, a problem with the rocket’s upper stage resulted in its failure to reach orbit. Rocket Lab has at least three dozen successful Electron flights under its belt, and only a handful of failures, but the latest is the third such failure in as many years.
Whether or not it proves to be a major setback has yet to be seen. The FAA in October cleared Rocket Lab to resume flights following the finalization of its investigation into the issue, which wrapped up in November. According to Rocket Lab, the problem was caused by “the rare interaction” of “three rare conditions” in the low-pressure space environment that created “an unexpected electrical arc” within the power supply system for the engine’s motor controllers, “shorting the battery packs that provide power to the launch vehicle’s second stage.” The company was still able to return to flight before the end of the year. On December 15, an Electron rocket delivered a Japanese satellite to orbit in a mission dubbed “The Moon God Awakens.”
Rocket Lab has been experimenting with different ways to recover its Electron boosters after flight —including mid-air catch attempts via helicopter — as it works toward rocket reusability. It’s also developing a medium-lift, partially reusable launch vehicle, Neutron, that’s expected to be completed in 2024.
Virgin Galactic & Virgin Orbit
Virgin Galactic, founded by Richard Branson, managed a steady cadence of flights this year with its VSS Unity suborbital spaceplane. The rocket-powered craft made six flights in six months in 2023, including its first ever space tourism trip in August. In addition to research missions, it’s now completed a total of four flights with paying tourists on board, all of them completed between this summer and fall.
The company took a bit of a hit on the stock market in December, though, after Branson said he wouldn’t be putting any more of his own money into it. Speaking to the Financial Times, Branson said, “We don’t have the deepest pockets after COVID, and Virgin Galactic has got $1 billion, or nearly. It should, I believe, have sufficient funds to do its job on its own.” Following his comments, shares took a nosedive. But, they’ve since climbed back up.
Virgin Orbit, on the other hand, didn’t fare so well in 2023. Branson’s Virgin Galactic spinoff announced in May that it was shutting down a month after filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The company was formed in 2017 with the intention of becoming a launch provider for small satellite missions. It had a unique approach to getting payloads to space; Virgin Orbit used a modified Boeing 747 plane to launch its rocket, LauncherOne, from the air.
But it struggled to keep up with the competition, and in January, it suffered a failure during what was the first ever orbital launch from the UK. As a result, the satellites it had been commissioned by the UK and US governments to deliver didn’t make it to orbit. It was the company’s second failure out of a total of just six missions, and it proved unable to rebound.
Newcomers hit hurdles
California-based Relativity Space has been working for years to build the first fully 3D-printed reusable rockets, with plans for an eventual medium-to-heavy-lift vehicle that could send missions to the moon and Mars. Its first rocket, Terran 1, had its inaugural launch in March this year, but it failed not long after liftoff. It hit some key milestones, though, making it through Max-Q (the point of maximum dynamic pressure on a spaceship during flight) and stage separation. Now, Relativity Space is turning its attention to its larger vehicle, Terran 2, which it plans to have ready for launch in 2026 from Cape Canaveral.
ABL Space, also based in California, conducted its own first flight in 2023 with the launch of its RS1 rocket. Shortly after liftoff, all nine of RS1’s engines shut down, causing the vehicle to crash back down to Earth. In a Substack post at the end of October, CEO Harry O’Hanley detailed some of the work the company has been doing in the months since the first flight to prepare for its second launch, but no date for Flight 2 has been announced just yet.
More to come in 2024
In many ways, 2023 has felt like a primer for what’s to come in 2024, which is shaping up to be a big year for spaceflight based on the timelines of current projects, both private and government-sponsored. SpaceX has already said it’s planning to hit 12 launches a month in 2024, which would bring it to 144 by the end of the year.
This year marked the end of the road for Arianespace’s long-running Ariane 5 rocket, which has become the leading launch vehicle in Europe for heavy missions over its 27 years of service. Ariane 5 had its final flight in July, leaving the continent with few launch options for big missions until the release of its successor, Ariane 6. Like others, though, Ariane 6 has been hit by delay after delay over the years, pushing it way behind its originally targeted 2020 debut. The rocket, which Arianespace is developing for the European Space Agency, is expected to make its first flight in summer 2024.
NASA and Boeing are planning the first crewed flight of the Starliner reusable spacecraft capsule, which after being back for the umpteenth time this year, is now slated to be ready around March 2024. NASA also plans to launch the next phase of its moon mission, Artemis II, as early as November 2024. It will be the second flight for NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, and will have four astronauts aboard the Orion capsule for a lunar flyby. But as always, it’d be reasonable to expect some delays.
This article originally appeared on Engadget at https://www.engadget.com/spacex-dominated-private-spaceflight-in-2023-but-its-competitors-mostly-arent-quitting-153050005.html?src=rss