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MIT Technology Review

The five biggest space failures of 2019

Between NASA and SpaceX, Earth and Mars, there was plenty to groan about in 2019.

December 26, 2019
SpaceX recovers Dragon capsuleSpaceX recovers Dragon capsule
SpaceX recovers Dragon capsuleNASA / Isaac Watson

When it came to space, there were plenty of successes to celebrate in 2019. China landed a spacecraft on the far side of the moon for the first time in human history. NASA’s New Horizons probe did a fly-by of the most distant object a human-made spacecraft has ever visited. A Japanese spacecraft retrieved samples from an asteroid’s surface––twice. It even shot a bullet into the asteroid to make an artificial crater. SpaceX launched its new crew vehicle to the International Space Station … without a crew, sure, but still, a step in that direction. The company also debuted the first prototype of its Starship.

Yet for each major achievement, there was a major failure. Here are the five biggest space failures of 2019. Brace yourself.

1. Mars One goes bankrupt

The most positive spin to put on the failure of Mars One is that it was a naïve dream. A more realistic assessment might be that it was a scam. A Dutch group managed to convince a bunch of investors to pour tens of millions of dollars into a plan to send the first humans to Mars and have them establish a colony. This was going to be a one-way trip. In truth, the plans seemed outlandish and insufficiently funded. The PR push was impressive, but the organization was not developing its own spaceflight architecture and had simply assumed it would be able to get everything it needed from the commercial market. The timeline kept slipping. To no one’s real surprise, Mars One finally declared bankruptcy on January 15.

2. SpaceIL Beresheet crash-lands on the moon

last photo from Beresheet
SpaceIL

Israeli company SpaceIL was founded back in 2011 as a contestant for the $30 million Google Lunar X Prize, a competition for privately funded groups to launch a robotic mission to the surface of the moon. Although the contest ended without a winner, SpaceIL decided to forge ahead anyway, with support from the Israeli Space Agency itself. Its Beresheet lander almost made it before unfortunately crash-landing into the lunar surface on April 11. Beresheet was mourned, and SpaceIL was lauded for its efforts (and for its plans to attempt another lunar landing). Then the story got weird. In August, it was reported that the lander’s payload secretly included a capsule of tardigrades that may very well have survived the crash and could be sitting on the surface as we speak. So now there might accidentally be life on the moon. Oops.

3. SpaceX Crew Dragon explodes on the launchpad

After successfully launching its Crew Dragon vehicle to the International Space Station in March, SpaceX was feeling pretty good about itself. April 20 rolled around, and the company was preparing for a standard static test of the vehicle’s Super Draco Engines. Then something went very wrong, and the capsule went up in flames and was completely destroyed. The company later found out a leaky propellant valve was to blame. The explosion set back SpaceX’s Crew Dragon time line, and as a result, 2019 came and went without any NASA astronaut going up into space from US soil.

Donald Trump tweets Iran launch photos

4. Iran’s third failed launch in a row

Iran’s space program is still in its infancy, and its three launch failures in a single year only underscore that fact. The latest, this past August, was perhaps the most devastating. In unsuccessful missions conducted in January and February, the country’s rockets failed to reach orbit. In the latest one on August 29, however, the rocket didn’t even get off the ground. An explosion on the launchpad destroyed the small Safir rocket and its payload, likely because of an accident during launch preparation. President Trump tweeted about the explosion in what many interpreted as a taunt directed at Iran’s government.

5. India’s Vikram lunar lander crashes into the moon

India was looking forward to becoming the fourth nation in history to land a spacecraft on the moon. Its Chandrayaan-2 mission had reached lunar orbit a month earlier, and India’s space agency was ready to send its Vikram lander to the surface of the south pole and tell us more about the moon’s fabled reserves of water ice. Vikram never made it; on September 6, like Beresheet before it, the lander crashed and was lost forever. Space is hard, and that goes double for landing on the moon.

Take a look at what’s coming up ahead in the new year. Here are the seven most exciting space missions of 2020.