2020, the trying year that it was, was a triumphant one for space exploration. And at the center for some of the year’s most consequential missions was the Space Coast of Florida.
In May, it was the site of the United States’ historic return to human spaceflight, with the launch of astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley aboard SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, ending a nine-year drought without crewed missions from American soil.
The crew’s capsule later splashed down off the coast of the Florida Panhandle, ushering in a new era of space exploration with privately built spacecraft.
In July, United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V rocket lifted off from the Space Coast with a next-generation rover in tow to search for traces of life on Mars. And in November, it was where SpaceX launched yet another group of astronauts, reviving the bygone days of routine crewed missions.
In all, Florida saw 31 successful launches — SpaceX missions deploying batches of Starlink satellites for Elon Musk’s growing internet constellation; satellite missions for the military, for SiriusXM and for the South Korean and Argentinian governments; as well cargo resupply missions for the International Space Station carrying dozens of science experiments.
Dale Ketcham, vice president of Space Florida, said he was impressed “we were able to accomplish the number of launches that we did successfully from the Cape. The space program, whether it was commercial exploration or national security, kept working. We kept launching even through the pandemic.”
There haven’t been that many launches in a single year since 1966, when there were 29, Ketcham said. There were 203 in 1963, but not all of those were trying to reach orbit as they do today.
Here were some of the biggest:
May 30: Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley launch to ISS
Strapped into a Crew Dragon capsule atop SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, Behnken and Hurley on a Saturday at 3:22 p.m. punched through the sky en route to the ISS, delivering on a contract with NASA executed in 2014.
As throngs of people watched along the river in Titusville chanting “USA! USA!,” Hurley called back to ground teams, “It is absolutely our honor to be part of this huge effort to get the United States back in the launch business.”
Their historic flight was the first since the shuttle program had ended in 2011, eliminating a way for Americans to get into space. Instead, NASA became reliant on buying seats on Russia’s Soyuz rocket, at $80 million a pop.
Following takeoff, President Donald Trump spoke from inside NASA’s Vehicle Assembly Building, joined by Vice President Mike Pence, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine and SpaceX founder Elon Musk.
“With this launch, decades of lost years and little action are officially over,” Trump said. “A new age of American ambition has now begun.”
July 30: Perseverance rover launches to Mars
In early March, when out of thousands of name ideas for NASA’s new Mars rover 13-year-old Alexander Mather’s suggestion of “Perseverance” was chosen, no one foresaw the prescient message it would carry as the coronavirus pandemic capsized American life.
And as the virus outbreak threatened to delay a mission years in the making.
But it didn’t, and on July 30 at 7:50 a.m., the rover launched atop a ULA Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. In February, it will land on Mars to scout out any traces of ancient life. Two other spacecraft en route to the Red Planet also launched this year: the Hope Orbiter from the United Arab Emirates and China’s Tianwen-1 lander and rover.
For Perseverance’s mission, it’s aiming to land in Mars’ Jezero crater, a 28-mile-wide surface that billions of years ago was the location of a now dried-up river that scientists have been able to map extensively.
If it’s able to successfully land on the jagged terrain, it’ll spend its days searching and drilling for “biosignatures” of organisms. It’ll then collect the samples in tubes and find a safe place to stow them on the surface until the retrieval mission arrives in 2028.
They’ll arrive on Earth in 2031.
Aug. 2: Behnken and Hurley splashdown into Gulf
After 63 days in space, Behnken and Hurley arrived back on Earth, with a cannonball splash into the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Pensacola. It was the first astronaut water landing in 45 years, and in that moment, the United States solidified its position in the modern-day space race.
“Welcome back to planet Earth, and thanks for flying SpaceX,” Mike Heiman, crew operations and resources engineer for SpaceX, said to the duo over the transmission.
After the capsule was hoisted out of the water onto a recovery ship, Behnken and Hurley were helped out feet first. The two of them then flew to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston to meet up with Musk, who admitted he thought “thank goodness” when he saw them both safe.
They had ridden 27 million miles and 19 hours through space to reach Earth, going up to 17,500 mph. And that kerplunk into the water was the symbolic end to America’s reliance on Russia to get humans into space.
“May it never be that the United States goes a day without a human spaceflight capability in the future,” said Bridenstine, the NASA administrator, shortly after the duo’s return. “We have to make sure that another generation doesn’t miss this opportunity.”
Nov. 14: Four more astronauts launch from Florida
On the heels of Behnken and Hurley’s return, SpaceX and NASA took another historic step: they launched four more astronauts.
At 7:27 p.m. from Kennedy Space Center, Mike Hopkins, Victor Glover, Shannon Walker and Japan’s Soichi Noguchi rode up on the first “operational” flight of the commercial Dragon spacecraft.
“The view is beautiful. That was one heck of a ride,” Hopkins called back to mission control just moments after the Falcon 9 rocket cut through the night sky. “To all the people at NASA and SpaceX, by working together through these difficult times, you’ve inspired the nation, the world. And now it’s time for us to do our part. Crew-1 for all.”
Since then, the cadre has been living aboard the ISS, along with three other astronauts who arrived in October by the Soyuz MS-17 spacecraft. They’ll stay at the ISS for about six months before performing their own splashdown return in April.
It was a crucial step in NASA’s Artemis program that aims to put astronauts on the moon by 2024 and eventually on Mars.
“I believe 20 years from now, we’re going to look back at this time as a major turning point in our exploration and utilization of space,” said Phil McAlister, director of commercial spaceflight for NASA. “It’s not an exaggeration to state that with this milestone, NASA and SpaceX have changed the historical arc of human space transportation.”
What does 2021 have in store?
Having now proven it can launch humans into space and bring them home safely, over the next year SpaceX plans to get busy sending up more people.
In 2021, it hopes to launch at least seven times to the ISS, some missions with astronauts and some just cargo.
The next group of astronauts for the company’s Crew-2 mission have already been selected and are scheduled to launch next spring. The crew includes NASA astronauts Shane Kimbrough and Megan McArthur, wife of Behnken, and Japan’s Akihiko Hoshide and Thomas Pesquet of the European Space Agency.
The New Year will also see the return of Crew-1 currently onboard the ISS and Perseverance land on Mars. And the Space Force will select the site of its new headquarters out of six states, including Florida, on a shortlist.
Also, Boeing, the other company NASA contracted with in 2014 to build commercial crew vehicles, is looking to 2021 to complete testing of its Starliner spacecraft.
Boeing is targeting March 29 for an uncrewed test flight to the ISS after its first try in December 2019 failed. It ended with the vehicle winding up in the wrong orbit and returning to Earth without completing the mission, setting back the timeline for the program. Teams later said it was a problem with the spacecraft’s software.
Barring more delays, Starliner’s first crewed mission could be as early as next summer.
“Up until this year, getting into space was a government activity,” said Space Florida’s Ketcham, adding that the “vast majority of all humans going into space” will ride on private space company rockets in the future.