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The pandemic couldn’t keep the space industry down

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As most of the world slowed to a pandemic-induced halt this year, the space industry rocketed forward. A pair of astronauts launched to orbit on a private spacecraft for the first time. Three separate missions blasted off to Mars. And a robot hundreds of millions of miles from Earth grabbed the largest sample of an asteroid ever captured.

Looking back on 2020, space turned out to be a relative bright spot in a particularly dark year. Boosted by government contracts and increased demand in some sectors, the private space industry pushed through the chaos of this year. At the same time, public exploration missions scrambled to meet rigid timetables. And both groups managed to triumph while adhering to rapidly changing public health restrictions around the globe.

Despite the turmoil, the world launched more than 1,200 satellites this year, according to spaceflight tracker Jonathan McDowell — more than in any other year past. And while many of those satellites were either small in size, or bulk satellites from SpaceX, the numbers are indicative of just how much the space economy has grown in the previous years — and how resilient spaceflight has become even when faced with a pandemic.

“Governments around the world have increased their focus on space as a priority, either for national defense like in the US, or for exploration,” Carissa Christensen, founder and CEO of Bryce Space and Technology, a space analytics and engineering firm, tells The Verge. Even during a pandemic, that emphasis continued, she says.

The space world wasn’t completely immune to COVID-19, though. When the pandemic first got underway, many companies had to slow down or pause their activities as they adjusted to new social distancing guidelines, staggered shifts, and new cleaning practices. Europe temporarily ceased flights out of its spaceport in French Guiana in mid-March, and some satellite launches suffered delays as travel restrictions made it difficult to transport hardware. Engineers even turned off some instruments on spacecraft already in space to reduce the labor needed to keep them running.

ULA’s Atlas V rocket launched NASA’s Perseverance rover to Mars in July.
Image: NASA

A few companies suffered major losses, too. Bigelow Aerospace, which aims to build inflatable space habitats, let go all of its employees in late March, citing lockdown restrictions. And certain sectors of the satellite industry suffered slowdowns, especially those that provide communications and services for cruise and maritime industries, as well as airlines, says Christensen. “Some of the changes in travel patterns have had an impact on satellite operators,” she says.

But other areas of the satellite world saw a huge increase in demand this year. Governments and industries sought out data from companies that provide high-resolution imagery of Earth and geospatial intelligence, says Chad Anderson, CEO of angel investment and venture capital firm Space Angels. People were eager to learn more about how the pandemic has impacted travel and what new global trends have emerged on Earth in 2020.

“In times of uncertainty, businesses and leaders are really hungry for information and insight, which is exactly the type of data that space companies provide,” says Anderson. “So as the world gets more uncertain, and as anxiety goes up, people are clamoring for more information.”

Not only did the government seek more data from the industry, but in the US, it classified many aerospace companies as “essential,” since they held contracts with NASA or the Department of Defense. This allowed companies to continue to bring employees on site to continue working on all their projects, both government-related and commercial.

The US government also provided a lifeline in the form of contract payouts, Anderson says. Government agencies restructured how they paid out their contractors, providing more money at the height of the pandemic. That kept a lot of organizations afloat until investment picked back up again, Anderson says. And after a second quarter slowdown, the third quarter of 2020 became “one of the biggest quarters on record for investment and growth in infrastructure space,” he says.

Satellite imagery from Planet reveals the Great Mosque of Mecca on January 25th, 2020 (L) and March 10th, 2020.
Image: Planet

Of course, much of the spotlight in space this year was on SpaceX’s first crewed mission to the International Space Station. On May 31st, two NASA astronauts — Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley — flew to space on the company’s new Crew Dragon capsule, marking the first crewed launch to orbit from US soil since the end of the space shuttle program. Thousands of viewers from all over the world tuned in to the launch, providing a hopeful distraction for a suffering public.

SpaceX’s flight was just the headliner of a massive year in space-related accomplishments. Three missions launched to Mars from three separate countries, including NASA’s new Perseverance rover, equipped with tools to look for life on the Red Planet. NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission grabbed what could be the largest sample of an asteroid ever retrieved. And China landed its third robotic mission on the Moon, in a quest to bring a sample of lunar dirt back to Earth.

Some of these achievements were more or less an exercise in weird timing. All three Mars missions had to get off the ground this year, or they’d miss the window to reach the Red Planet. If they hadn’t launched this summer, they would have been forced to wait until 2022, resulting in loss of time and money. OSIRIS-REx, on the other hand, has been in space since 2016, with longstanding plans to grab a sample of an asteroid this year. Postponing the grab for too long just wasn’t an option, as the vehicle has limited fuel on board.

“Some of that was just very good luck — or very bad luck, depending,” says Christensen. “You’ll have a five, seven, 10-year program, and it launches when it launches. So I think that for the exploration program, it’s kind of a reflection of a long schedule.”

Still, the fact that these major achievements happened during the pandemic is a testament to the strength of the people who run their spacecraft. NASA engineers told tales of racing to get Perseverance off the ground just in time, while adhering to stricter guidelines and new work from home policies. And it wasn’t just them. Everyone in the space world was still grappling with the pandemic here on Earth, while trying to keep their space robots launching and functioning.

While the humans of Earth are doing their best to stay in one place, we’re still thrusting our way into the cosmos — a sign that we’ll continue to explore the stars even in times of incredible adversity. “It was definitely a bright spot in an otherwise horrible year, and more is on the way,” says Anderson.

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