1 of 3 | SpaceX's Starlink satellites are deployed into space in May. The company plans to launch hundreds more in 2020. File Photo by SpaceX/UPI | License Photo
ORLANDO, Fla., Dec. 26 (UPI) -- American courage and ingenuity in space exploration will be tested as it hasn't in decades as 2020 begins.
NASA and a number of space entrepreneurs hope that, 51 years since the first Apollo lunar landing, America resumes human spaceflight and takes a leap toward a return to the moon.
Launching people from U.S. soil for the first time in almost a decade is the most anticipated space event planned for the New Year, along with growth of global satellite networks for high-speed Internet connections.
The U.S. space industry is expected to continue rapid expansion as it did in 2019, with a steady pace of launches and a test flight of NASA's new moon rocket.
America's reputation as the global leader in space exploration is at stake, along with billions of dollars in anticipated growth of commercial space led by Boeing and SpaceX -- both of which are building capsules to carry crews.
NASA also is pursuing the first test flight of its Space Launch System rocket for planned Artemis moon missions. Test firing the rocket is scheduled early in 2020, with a possible uncrewed flight by fall.
Kennedy Space Center in Florida, long the hub of human space exploration, once again rumbles with launches and preparation -- at a level not seen for decades.
"It's really busy now. There's a lot going on, and I think there's even more in store, a lot more," said Mike Bolger, NASA's manager of exploration ground systems at the space center. "The launch rate is ramping up. It's really a cool time to be here."
For the first time since 2011, astronauts are scheduled to launch on a rocket from U.S. soil in February.
NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken are preparing to fly on the SpaceX's Demo-2 flight in which the Crew Dragon capsule will return to a splashdown at sea. The test mission will be the next big step in trying to establish U.S. flights to the International Space Station. NASA has been buying seats in Russian Soyuz capsules since the shuttle stopped flying.
NASA's test flight of Boeing's new Starliner capsule closed out 2019 with a flawed, but dramatic, test flight. Plans are moving ahead for astronauts to launch in the capsule in 2020.
Starliner was launched Dec. 20, but failed to reach the International Space Station as intended because of a software problem. The capsule nevertheless managed a 33-orbit flight, deemed a success by Boeing and NASA, with a high-tech mannequin inside that showed the capsule was safe to fly humans.
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said he spoke to Vice President Mike Pence soon after the Boeing launch, and that Pence assured him of the administration's support to push forward with human spaceflight.
Pence "was assured that NASA will continue to test and improve, in order to return American astronauts to space on American rockets in 2020," the vice president's press secretary said of the call.
Eyeing the moon
The bigger goal of returning to the moon to build a base there is scheduled for its first steps in 2020, while Congress will decide whether to fund the longer-term lunar plan.
Pence made a historic announcement in March 2019 that NASA would accelerate its moon landing goal to 2024. It previously targeted 2029.
Bridenstine followed up, saying in May that the missions would be called Artemis, named after the sister of Greek god Apollo, and they would send "the first woman and the next man" to the moon.
NASA's SLS moon rocket core stage is to be test fired at Stennis Space Center in southern Mississippi, which will take about eight to 10 months.
When it does launch in the last half of 2020, the first female launch director in NASA's history will be in charge in the firing room at Kennedy Space Center.
Charlie Blackwell-Thompson said she eagerly looks forward to seeing the SLS stacked and ready for launch.
More competition exists in trying to get to the moon. In May, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos declared that his rocket company, Blue Origin, would build the Blue Moon lander and also reach the moon by 2024 in a commercial effort. One of his goals, he said, was to inspire future generations and provide a space infrastructure for the future.
"We have to use the resources of space," Bezos said during the announcement. "It's this generation's job to build that road to space so that the future generations can unleash their creativity."
Satellite communications is set for a dramatic expansion in 2020, as several companies aim for global networks capable of beaming high-speed Internet service to places in which such service previously was impossible.
SpaceX launched 122 Starlink satellites in 2019. It has plans for up to 24 launches carrying 1,440 satellites in the coming year. Its eventual goal is a network of more than 10,000 satellites.
A major competitor, Airbus-backed OneWeb, began mass production of satellites in a new factory just outside Kennedy Space Center. OneWeb also launched its first five satellites in 2019 and tentatively plans to launch 24 satellites in early 2020. It also has a goal of launching hundreds for its orbiting network.
Internet broadband communication will see huge improvements in speed and coverage of the planet in the near future as a result of the new satellite networks, said David Klumpar, director of Montana State University's Space Science and Engineering Lab.
"The small satellite market was primarily the realm of universities until just five years ago. I find it phenomenal the uptake of this platform by the industry," Klumpar said.
But, he said government agencies are way behind, and science agencies like NASA should have launched hundreds of small satellites to learn more about space weather and other phenomena.
Klumpar also said he expects backlash against the growing number of satellites and space trash that circle the planet. Collisions in space are a growing threat, he said, despite claims by space companies that they can use thrusters to avoid collisions.
"The concern is huge and the government is running as fast as it can to figure out how to handle regulation," he said.
New companies form
So-called NewSpace launch providers proliferated in 2019, but competition also heated up, so 2020 is likely to see some shakeout, industry observers say.
Bezos' Blue Origin and Elon Musk's SpaceX lead the way, with SpaceX having launched multiple commercial and government satellites in 2019, along with three cargo missions to the International Space Station. The 2019 flights included the first two customers for SpaceX's Falcon Heavy rocket, the most powerful rocket in use today.
Blue Origin has been building a large expansion of its Florida rocket plant, where the company's orbital rocket, the New Glenn, is being developed. Blue Origin also continued to test its New Shepard rocket in suborbital flights, and said in early 2019 that technicians were preparing the first New Shepard intended to carry paying passengers.
"It's an exciting time and it's an unusual time. There's a huge number of players looking to commercialize space products," said Peter Beck, the founder of Rocket Lab.
Rocket Lab is a U.S. company that launches small rockets from New Zealand. It also opened a new launch site in Virginia for American clients.
"I expect more consolidation of small launch providers in 2020, and we've seen some companies fall out already," Beck said.
He said his company is aiming for 12 launches in 2020 from New Zealand and a new site near NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia.