Image: NASA astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley arrived at the International Space Station on Sunday aboard the first commercially built and operated American spacecraft to carry humans to orbit, opening a new era in human spaceflight. Source: NASA

By Larry Boyle, Vice President Chicago Society for Space Studies. This article is based on the presentation 2020 – The Space Year in Review

This review of the space activities of 2020 features the happenings in both the national and private sectors. 72 nations have space agencies with most being small. Six have “full” space programs: Russia, the United States, the European Space Agency (ESA), Japan, China, and India. There are too many private business, some only on paper, to reliably count. Wikipedia has a page that lists over a hundred of these companies. Most estimates of world spending on space activities are around $358 billion dollars a year. The military budgets of the national programs are secret and some private companies do not reveal their budgets for competitive reasons. Therefore total spending could be somewhat higher.


The Wikipedia page from private space companies lists over a hundred companies. There are several different subheadings including Commercial Astronauts, Cargo Transport Vehicles, Satellite launchers, and others.

The company that gets the most attention is SpaceX. It merited the press coverage because of its launch of two astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) on its Crew Dragon ship. The May 30th launch was the first time US crew had been launched into orbit from American soil on an American rocket since the Space Shuttle was retired in 2011. The crew docked with the ISS a few days later and stayed until August. They made the first splashdown since 1975. This marks the end of NASA’s paying Russia for trips to the ISS. NASA paid Russia over $4 billion for 71 seats since 2011. The cost for each seat started in 2011 at $21 million and ended at $90 million a seat. SpaceX is the owner of Crew Dragon. NASA is only an anchor tenant. SpaceX is already looking into using the system for space tourism.

SpaceX has other programs. Its Falcon Heavy launch vehicle, an upgrade for the Falcon 9 rocket, got a contract to launch an unmanned mission to an asteroid. Its heavy launcher, called Starship, had several test launches this year. Starship is designed to take people to Mars. Elon Musk intends to put a colony on Mars in the 2030s. To fund this Musk has started a program he calls Starlink. The program will put up to 12,000 satellites in low earth orbit. Starlink will connect the whole world to the Internet. Both optical and radio astronomers are worried that all the satellites will interfere with their work. SpaceX is working on reducing the effects of the satellites.

During the Space Shuttle program, NASA was grounded for years because of accidents. When NASA decided to create private ships, they did not want to depend on only the SpaceX system. Therefore, they gave Boeing a contact to build another manned system. Boeing calls its system Starliner. It failed an unmanned test. The test will be repeated in 2021. If it works, a manned test will take place in late 2021.

Blue Origin, a company owned by Jeff Bezos, is testing a system called New Shepard. It will take tourists on a suborbital flight above the Karman line. This line is the legal definition of outer space.

Virgin Galactic, a company owned by Richard Branson, will also launch space tourists on suborbital flights. It was tested this year. They are looking to fly, for profit, in 2021.

NASA signed a contact to let Tom Cruise film a movie on the International Space Station (ISS). There is no script and no schedule. So in a few years, we will be able to go to a space movie with Cruise as the star.


The largest national space program is run by the United States. NASA spends $22 billion a year. The ISS is the focus of NASA’s manned program. 15 other nations are part of the ISS cooperative. This year marked the 20th anniversary of human occupation of the International Space Station. They added a new toilet that is designed with women astronauts in mind as the older toilets were hard for females to use. There has been a small air leak on the station for months. The astronauts ripped open a bag of tea leaves and watched where the leaves went to find the leak.

The Space Launch System (SLS) and the Orion capsule are two other manned programs that NASA is working on. The COVID 19 pandemic has slowed work on both systems. Testing and building the machines took all the time this year. The first integrated test of the system is scheduled for November 2021. It will be unmanned. The first manned mission will be in 2023. It will be a return to lunar orbit.

The return to the Moon’s surface is called Artemis. In Greek mythology, Artemis was the twin sister of Apollo. It is planned to land on the surface in 2024. The first astronaut on the surface will be a woman. This may be delayed by the new administration. This year, NASA put out details of the plan. These include a space station in lunar orbit called Gateway. NASA started contracting for a lunar lander from private companies. Three companies got study contacts: Blue Origin, Jeff Bezos’s company; SpaceX, Elon Musk’s company, and Dynetics, a defense company. NASA wants international partners as in the ISS. It has put out an agreement called the Artemis Accords. So far eight nations have signed up.

NASA’s unmanned probes returned a lot of new information. One bureaucratic issue was a new set of rules to protect other planets from Earth life and Earth from (possible) alien life. The need to protect the Moon, which is known to be lifeless, seems overkill. Mars, which has no known life, but may have some, makes some sense.

Starting with the Sun, the Parker Solar Probe made its fifth and closest pass to the solar surface. It returned completely new data that will take years to understand. The planet Venus made the headlines in September with a new study which hinted at life. The scientists claimed to find phosphine gas in the upper atmosphere. On Earth, this gas is produced by life, mainly in swamps and Penguin poop. They are not saying that phosphine means life on Venus, but that more study is needed. At the end of the year another group of scientist denied that the gas was there.

On July 30th NASA launched the Perseverance mission. This mission is a near duplicate of the Curiosity probe now on Mars. The science instruments are all different but the truck they are on is the same as Curiosity. It carries a small helicopter, called Ingenuity. It is the first time that a helicopter will fly on another planet. Ingenuity has a camera. All these missions will get to Mars in February 2021.

Beyond Mars, NASA has a probe in the asteroid belt called OSIRIS-REX. It took a sample of the asteroid Bennu in October. The sample filled up the collector, so much that scientists were worried that it would not fit into the return capsule. In the end it fit. The probe will get back to Earth in September 2023.

The Juno probe is in orbit around Jupiter. It returned the first pictures of the the north pole of the moon Ganymede. This was the 30th anniversary of the Hubble. The infrared Spizter Space Telescope was retired in January. NASA renamed Spizter’s replacement the Nancy Roman Space Telescope. Nancy Roman was a NASA scientist who campaigned for the Hubble her whole career. It had been called the Wide Field Inferred Space Telescope (WFIRST).

Much less information is publicly available about the US military space program. They publicly admit to about $12 billion in spending. The aerospace press has published many estimates of the classified budget, but another $15 billion or so is the middle of the estimates. The total military budget is, therefore, around $30 billion.

The biggest story this year was the creation of the US Space Force. Its open budget is about $15 billion. What the total budget will be is unknown. The new logo got publicity because it has a resemblance to the logo of Star fleet from the Star Trek TV series. Space Force got 23 units from the Air Force. The X-37B, a small reusable, unmanned space plane is one of these. It was launched on its sixth mission on May 17, 2020. It carried several payloads including a test for a space based solar power system. “Semper Supra”, Latin for “Always Above” is the motto of Space Force. In March the first rocket launched under the control of Space Force sent a military communications satellite into orbit. A debate about what ranks to use in the Space Force reached Congress. Some Representatives wanted it to use the Navy ranks. This would have meant that it would have Admirals and Captains. Members of Space Force wanted to keep the Air Force ranks: Generals and Colonels. In December Space Force announced the Air Force ranks would be used.


China, which wants to be the best space program, is the second largest national program. We do not know how much it spends on space each year. The public figures are around $6 billion. Very few experts believe that this is all they spend. The main program is run by the Peoples Liberation Army.

The Long March 5 rocket launcher returned to service this year. It is the world’s second most powerful orbital launcher behind only SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy. The launcher is the key to China’s long range plans. The Chinese manned space station, set to begin building in 2022, will be constructed with the Long March 5. They added 18 new astronauts this year to help build their space station. China plans to put a man on the Moon in the 2030’s.

Using the Long March 5, China sent its first unmanned interplanetary mission to Mars on July 23, 2020. Called Tianwen 1, it has an orbiter, lander, and rover. No other nation has tried so complex a mission on its first try. In another unmanned mission, this time to the Moon, China returned a sample of the lunar surface – the first in 40 years.

China competed their Beidou navigation system in 2020. Beidou is the fourth GPS system in Earth orbit. GPS, of the United States, Glonass, of Russia, and Galileo, of Europe are the others. No one wants to be dependent on another nation for the military uses of a GPS system.

The Chinese are reported to have a arsenal of anti-satellite weapons. The Chinese government has not commented on these reports.

There are many private companies operating in China as well.


Another large Asian space program is that of India. A budget of over $1 billion makes the program the largest in the developing world. The COVID 19 pandemic hurt the program, and everyone else’s, this year. For 11 months, from January to November, they had no rocket launches – grounding a complete family of launchers. Six years ago India put a satellite in orbit around Mars. In 2018 India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, announced that India will launch a manned capsule into Earth orbit. The project, named Gaganyaan, will put 3 people into orbit. They want the first flight to coincide with the 75th anniversary of Indian independence on August 15, 2022. This year 4 Indian astronauts started training in Russia.

In 2019 the Indians became the fourth nation to test an anti satellite weapon. They continue to work on military projects this year.


Japan is a partner in the ISS and spends over $3 billion a year on its space program. It is working on a new launcher called H-3. It maintains a module at the ISS. The biggest 2020 event for Japan involved its sample return mission, Hayabusa 2. In December, the sample of the asteroid Ryugu, collected in November 2019, landed in Australia. Although Japan’s constitution forbids making war, it has a small military space budget of defense.


Russia is a major partner in the ISS. At $8 billion Russia is the third largest program in the world. The first flight of Crew Dragon will save money for NASA, but it will cost Russia money. Russia publicly says that the loss will not be a problem for them. Others doubt that. They are working on a new heavy lift rocket, called Angara. This rocket will be launched at the Vostchny Rocket Center. This base is replacing the Baikonur Cosmodrome. When the Soviet Union broke up, Baikonur ended up in a foreign country, Kazakhstan. Vostchny is years behind schedule because of corruption. Russia also has a military program which includes anti-satellite weapons.


The European Space Agency (ESA) is the only large multinational space agency in the world. In 1975, the states of Western Europe realized that individually, the United Kingdom, France, West Germany, Spain, Italy, and other small European nations could not compete with the United States and the then Soviet Union; so they founded the ESA. Together they are a formidable space power. After the end of the Cold War the states of Eastern Europe joined. ESA now has 22 member states and an annual budget of over $7 billion. Its Ariane 5 rocket family is one of the most used commercial rockets in the world. It has a capsule, called Columbus attached to the ISS.

ESA’s unmanned probes had the a good year. Its Solar Orbiter probe was launched on February 10, 2020, and it returned its first pictures of the Sun’s surface in July. ESA had planned to sent a probe to Mars this year, but they had problems with its instruments that caused a two year delay.

ESA operates the Galileo navigation system for the European Union. It also runs the Copernicus earth observation system.


United Arab Emirates, a small oil rich state in the Persian Gulf, launched its first space probe to Mars. Called Hope, the UAE started its whole space program to move its economy away from oil. Hope launched on Japan’s H2 on July 19, 2020.

Iran launched a military spy satellite on April 22, 2020.