A Year in Space

For the past year, almost everything has slowed down. Businesses have been closed, restaurants could only do takeout, and workplaces were shut down. One area that remained normal was spaceflight. SpaceX has set many records and then broken them. Starship has flown and landed a minivan-sized rover has landed on Mars, and so much more.

SpaceX set a new record for the fastest reuse of a booster this year, which they then broke several times. Their current record (which might change by the time you are reading this) is 27 days from one flight to the next for one booster. The record before this year, and for the past 35 years had been 37 days to re-fly a Space Shuttle. SpaceX has definitely been busy with Falcon 9 but they also made lots of progress on Starship. Since Connecticut shut down, Starship has gone from popping under the pressure from its fuel to being able to fly.

In early March of last year, Starship SN2 was constructed and underwent cryogenic proof testing. This is when the tanks are filled with fuel to a higher pressure than is used for flight. If the tank survives the high pressures and frigid temperatures of the liquid methane, it is considered safe to continue testing. SN2 was the first Starship prototype to pass the cryogenic proof test. 

After the cryogenic proof test is a static fire. During a static fire, the rocket is bolted down and the engines are fired at the thrust level that will be used in flight to test thrust levels, thrust vectoring (tilting the engine to control the rocket), and other aspects of the engines. The first Starship prototype to pass a static fire was SN4, which static fired successfully four times.

Starships SN5 and SN6 both completed 150-meter hops using a single engine. SN8 took this to the next level by flying up to 12.5 kilometers and performing the “belly flop” maneuver. This is when the vehicle flips onto its side to slow down as much as possible using the atmosphere. Just before landing the rocket lights its engines and flips upright. On SN8 there was an engine failure just before landing which caused it to crash in an upright position. With SN9, SpaceX thought they had solved all the problems with SN8 and it would land. SN9 also had an engine failure which caused it to crash before completing the flip back to vertical. On March 3, Starship SN10 became the first Starship to successfully land using the “belly flop” maneuver. There was a problem with a methane valve just before landing which may have contributed to the explosion of the rocket approximately eight minutes after landing.

NASA also had a few great accomplishments this year. One of these was a successful landing of a minivan-sized rover on the surface of Mars. The rover, Perseverance, was built by the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) to search for life on Mars. The mission launched on July 30, 2020, on an Atlas V-541 rocket. The rover arrived on Mars on February 18. The rover, inside a shielded pod, entered the Martian atmosphere at speeds faster than that of a bullet. After entering the atmosphere, the parachute was deployed to slow the vehicle even more. Once the parachute stopped providing deceleration, the pod separated from the rover, allowing it to free fall. When the pod separated, rockets on a “backpack” or sky crane on the rover fired, slowing its fall. About 30 feet above the ground, the sky crane began to hover and lowered Perseverance down to the surface. The ropes were cut and the sky crane flew away to crash where it would not damage the rover.

Another one of NASA’s accomplishments this year was the successful static fire of their Space Launch System (SLS) core stage. This is the main body of the rocket at liftoff. After a static fire that lasted only just under a minute, NASA had to push back the launch date of Artemis I, the first mission in a program that will bring humans back to the moon. On March 18, NASA attempted another static fire which was successful. All four engines ran for about eight minutes, testing their gimbaling (the ability of the engines to tilt individually during flight to maintain control), thrust levels, and some elements of the software. This is a big step for the NASA program that started in 2012 and was supposed to launch in 2016. The new launch date for Artemis I is sometime in November 2021.

Rocket Lab, a New Zealand-based company, announced a new rocket in development to compete with SpaceX’s Falcon 9. The Neutron rocket will be shorter and wider than the Falcon 9 but will have a similar lifting capacity. Both rockets can land on a large ship downrange for reuse and will be human-rated. It seems as though Rocket Lab is trying to take some of SpaceX’s business, but SpaceX has Starship, which will be better than any other rocket on the market for many years.

During COVID-19, while the world has been shut down, spaceflight has continued to thrive. Many commercial companies have made large steps with new rockets including landing Starship, announcing planned rockets, and setting new records for the fastest reuse time. NASA also continued work, testing their SLS rocket and landing a car-sized rocket on another planet. There is no sign of any of them slowing down any time soon. What will be the next major milestone reached by a space company? Will Starship reach orbit, will SLS fly around the moon, will Rocket Lab make another new engine?

Sean Harren, Staff Writer

Freshmen Sean Harren is a staff writer for the 2020-2021 Colonel. He plays soccer and lacrosse. In his free time, he enjoys sailing and CAD modeling/3D printing.

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