The US plans to step up its space rocket launches in 2020, officials said Wednesday, an increase driven largely by private sector companies like SpaceX.
The government is expecting to issue between 40 to 50 licenses in the 2020 budget year which began in October, said Wayne Monteith, the official in charge of space flight at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
By comparison, the FAA gave out 31 licences in 2019. These licenses include rockets that place spacecraft into orbit, but also test flights of space tourism companies like Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic, and even the return to Earth of SpaceX’s Dragon cargo capsules from the International Space Station.
“This industry is pushing the bounds of what’s possible,” said Monteith, speaking at the Commercial Space Transportation Conference in Washington.
At the height of the Cold War, the US and the Soviet Union made dozens of launches a year, but these were mostly for military purposes and state-financed.
Monteith hailed SpaceX, which launched the fourth cluster in its high-speed Internet satellite constellation Starlink on Wednesday, and is expected to send astronauts to the ISS for the first time this year.
But 2019 also saw the rise of a smaller American company, Rocket Lab, which has completed 10 launches since 2018 using small rockets that took off in New Zealand.
China has led the world in rocket launches in recent years, though its space industry relies heavily on the public sector and military.
There were 34 launches in China in 2019 compared to 21 for the United States and 25 for Russia, according to Gunter’s Space Page.