As the year comes to an end, we can reflect on the sheer magnitude of exciting spaceflight milestones that were achieved in 2019. These achievements range from China being the first to touch down safely on the far side of the Moon, to the maiden flights of the Boeing Starliner and SpaceX Crew Dragon commercial crew vehicles. Although the list below is far from complete, these are a few of the highs and lows that had us on the edge of our seats in 2019.
Although launched in 2018, Chang’e 4 became the first lunar lander in history to touch down on the far side of the Moon on January 3, 2019. The lander carried a number of scientific payloads and a small rover, the Yutu-2. Over the past 12 months, the Yutu-2 has transversed over 345 meters and surpassed all others before it operating longer on the surface of the Moon than any other rover in history, a record previously held by the Soviet Lunokhod 1 rover.
The Beresheet lunar lander was launched aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 on February 22. In addition to being the first non-governmental mission to attempt to land on the Moon, it was also the smallest to ever attempt the feat and the first to be launched as part of a ride-share mission. Unfortunately, during its approach to the landing site north of the Mare Serenitatis, a gyroscope failure caused the Beresheet lander to slam into the lunar surface at over 500km/hour.
SpaceX Crew Dragon test flight
The SpaceX Crew Dragon became the first spacecraft designed as part of NASA’s commercial crew program to complete an uncrewed test flight to the International Space Station. The spacecraft was launched aboard a Falcon 9 on March 2. It rendezvoused and docked autonomously to the space station’s Harmony module a day later at 10:51 UTC. Following a 5-day stay aboard the station, the spacecraft undocked and returned to Earth safely splashing down in the Atlantic at 13:45 UTC on March 8.
Despite the successful maiden flight of the spacecraft, during a static fire test of the recovered vehicle on April 20, an anomaly occurred resulting in the total destruction of the vehicle. Following the explosion, an investigation was launched and the cause of the anomaly discovered and fixed. The redesigned Crew Dragon is expected to carry its first crewed mission to the International Space Station in 2020.
Following the success of the Chandrayaan-1 mission, India set out to attempt its first soft landing on the surface of the Moon in 2019. Chandrayaan-2 was launched on July 22 aboard a GSLV Mark III and included an orbiter, the Vikram lander, and the Pragyan rover. The spacecraft successfully entered orbit around the Moon on August 20 with the Vikram lander separating from the orbiter just under two weeks later on September 2.
Initially, the Vikram lander’s descent seemed to be going according to plan. However, just 2.1 kilometers above the surface of the Moon, the lander began to deviate from it’s planned descent profile and just seconds before touchdown, all telemetry with it was lost. Although initially, officials remained hopeful that despite the loss of telemetry, the lander had successfully completed the descent. However, attempts to communicate with the lander were eventually abandoned after the wreckage of the lander was discovered by orbiting satellites.
In aid of the development of the company’s super heavy-lift Starship rocket, SpaceX built a small test vehicle dubbed StarHopper. The vehicle was used for short flights to test the company’s next-generation Raptor rocket engine. Following a small maiden hop in July, SpaceX completed an extended hop in August with the vehicle reaching an altitude of around 150 meters and landing around 100 meters from the launchpad. Following the second hop, the Starhopper vehicle was decommissioned as work progressed on a full-sized Starship prototype.
First all-female spacewalk
The first all-female spacewalk aboard the International Space Station had initially been planned for March 29. However, an issue with spacesuit availability resulted in NASA astronaut Anne McClain being replaced. A second attempt would, however, follow soon after with NASA astronauts Jessica Meir and Christina Koch performing the first all-female spacewalk on October 18, 2019. The pair replaced a faulty battery charge/discharge unit that had failed to activate after a previous spacewalk.
Virgin Galactic goes public
On October 28, Virgin Galactic become the first commercial space tourism company to be listed on a public stock exchange. The listing was a result of a merger between the space tourism company and investment firm, Social Capital Hedosophia. Following the merger, Virgin Galactic founder Sir Richard Branson secured a 51% majority share in the new company, which was, at the time of listing valued at $1.5 billion.
The stock was listed on the New York Stock Exchange under the ticker symbol SPCE. It initially opened at $12.34 but began to slip almost immediately eventually falling as low as $7.22 in late November. It has since recovered and is currently trading at $11.49.
Boeing Starliner test flight
The maiden flight of the Boeing Starliner spacecraft was launched aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V N22 on December 22, 2019. The spacecraft is expected to rendezvous and dock with the International Space Station for an extended stay. However, following a successful sub-orbital insertion from the Atlas V upper stage, the spacecraft’s boosters failed to fire autonomously due to a timing error.
Although Boeing ground controllers were eventually able to fire the boosters manually, the error required too much fuel to correct negating the chance of a rendezvous with the space station. After raising its orbit successfully and completing a number of important milestones, the spacecraft returned to Earth safely just two days after it was launched.
Long March 5 return to flight
China’s Long March 5 heavy-lift rocket is a key element of the country’s future ambitions in space. In 2020 alone, the rocket is set to be used to launch the Mars Global Remote Sensing Orbiter and accompanying rover, the Chang’e 5 lunar sample return mission, and the maiden flight of the country’s new crewed spacecraft.
After a below-par maiden flight in 2016 and a complete failure on its second time out in 2017, the Long March 5 returned to action in 2019 after a major redesign. The rocket was successfully launched on December 27 blasting off from the Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site carrying the Shijian-20 test satellite.