Boeing’s rebuilding year drew to a close today with a milestone capping a momentous year in aerospace: the first U.S. passenger flight for a 737 MAX jet since the worldwide fleet was grounded.
American Airlines Flight 718 carried 87 passengers from Miami to New York’s LaGuardia Airport, more than 21 months after two catastrophic crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia brought a halt to 737 MAX flights.
The incidents led to months of investigation, focusing on an automated flight control system that was found to be vulnerable to software glitches. Boeing had to revamp the system and rework pilot training routines in cooperation with airlines. The Federal Aviation Administration gave the go-ahead for the return to commercial operations just last month.
Brazil’s Gol Airlines and Aeromexico resumed flying 737 MAX jets earlier this month, but Flight 718 was the first time since the grounding that a MAX carried paying passengers on a regularly scheduled U.S. flight. Among those on board was Robert Isom, president of American Airlines Group.
In the weeks ahead, other U.S. air carriers will be following suit. Boeing, the FAA and airlines insist that the 737 MAX’s safety issues have all been resolved, but customers typically will be given the option to change flights if they’re uncomfortable flying on the MAX.
Embarrassing lapses came to light in the wake of the 737 MAX crashes, in which 346 people died. That dealt a heavy blow to Boeing’s reputation for engineering excellence. This year’s coronavirus pandemic and its effect on global travel trends made for a double whammy. Over the course of the past year, Boeing has trimmed its workforce by about 13,000 jobs — and by the end of 2021, the losses are projected to rise to more than 30,000 jobs.
Not all of 2020’s developments have been gloomy: David Calhoun, who took the reins as CEO at the beginning of the year, has patiently worked on a turnaround for Washington state’s top aerospace company. And it’s showing results: After suffering through a negative trend in net orders, Boeing reported a boost in 737 MAX orders and options from Alaska Airlines last week.
2020 also brought the first flight tests for Boeing’s wide-body 777X model, although the first 777X deliveries have been put off until 2022.
How will Boeing fare in 2021? Like so many other questions about post-pandemic prospects, the answer is — dare we say it? — up in the air.
4 more top stories from 2020
Astronauts launch from American soil: In May, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket lofted NASA astronauts into orbit from U.S. soil for the first time since the space shuttle fleet’s retirement in 2011. SpaceX’s Crew Dragon craft performed flawlessly during the demonstration flight to the International Space Station, which lasted 64 days from launch to splashdown. That set the stage for the first officially certified Crew Dragon mission in November, and there are more to come. The Dragon space taxi that’s currently attached to the station has been dubbed Resilience, in honor of the measures taken to cope with the coronavirus pandemic.
Rise of the mega-constellations: SpaceX launched hundreds of satellites into low Earth orbit for its Starlink broadband internet constellation, which began beta testing in October. The satellites are manufactured at SpaceX’s facility in Redmond, Wash. Not far from there, Amazon is working on a rival constellation known as Project Kuiper. In July, the Federal Communications Commission authorized Amazon’s plan to put 3,236 satellites into low Earth orbit, or LEO, and Amazon quickly announced that it was committing $10 billion to the project. Yet another mega-constellation venture, OneWeb, declared bankruptcy in March — but emerged under new ownership and resumed launching satellites this month. What will all these satellites do to the skies above? That’s a continuing controversy.
The cloud goes to the final frontier: In 2020, Amazon and Microsoft turned a spotlight on space-based cloud platforms. Or should we say cloud-based space platforms? Amazon Web Services announced that it’s setting up an aerospace and satellite business unit, while Microsoft took the wraps off Azure Orbital and struck a deal with SpaceX for Starlink satellite connectivity.
China brings back pieces of the moon: China’s Chang’e-5 probe zoomed off to the moon in November, and less than a month later, it brought back the first samples collected on the lunar surface since the 1970s. The feat marked a signal achievement for China’s space program and earned congratulations from NASA.
Other stories of note: Spaceflight Inc.’s change of ownership, the collapse of the Arecibo radio telescope (just as astronomers were reporting the detection of weird radio signals from Proxima Centauri), the launch of three missions to Mars (including NASA’s Perseverance rover) and the return of asteroid samples by Japan’s Hayabusa 2 probe.
5 milestones for 2021 that arguably should have happened already
Boom time for Blue Origin: 2020 was supposed to be a big year for Blue Origin, Jeff Bezos’ space venture, but the pandemic got in the way. Now 2021 is shaping up as the year when Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital spaceship could carry people to the edge of space for the first time; when the orbital-class New Glenn rocket is due to lift off for the first time; and when NASA just might choose a team led by Blue Origin to build a lunar lander for the Artemis program’s astronauts.
SpaceX’s Starship in orbit: A prototype version of SpaceX’s Starship super-rocket put on an spectacular show during a December flight test. Even Bezos was impressed, despite the fact that the SN8 flight ended in a fiery crash. A couple of years ago, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk predicted that Starship (then known as the BFR, or Big Freakin’ Rocket) would make it to orbit by 2020. He may have missed that deadline, but don’t sell SpaceX short. Once Starship’s Super Heavy booster makes it to orbit, that’s likely to spark a spaceflight revolution of interplanetary proportions.
Boeing’s Starliner in orbit: Boeing had hoped to start flying NASA astronauts to the International Space Station on its CST-100 Starliner space taxi in 2020, but a glitch-plagued uncrewed test flight in late 2019 dealt a huge setback to that plan. Now Boeing and NASA plan to redo the uncrewed test next March — and if all goes well, crewed flights would soon follow.
Drones in the air: In 2019, Amazon executive Jeff Wilke said the company was just months away from sending out drones to make routine package deliveries to customers. But it’s taking longer than expected for Amazon to send in the drones, probably due to regulatory issues as well as COVID-19 complications. This week, the FAA released two sets of rules that it said would bring us closer to the era of routine drone deliveries, and in 2021, there’s a good chance that Amazon will be conducting the sorts of public field trials that UPS and Wing are already doing.
Celebrities in space: When this year began, it looked as if Virgin Galactic might start flying paying passengers above the 50-mile space boundary in 2020 — but COVID-19 issues led to delays in the company’s transition to operations at Spaceport America in New Mexico. Once Virgin Galactic finishes its test program, it may not be much longer before the likes of Justin Bieber and Leonardo DiCaprio follow through on their SpaceShipTwo reservations. And there’s a chance that Tom Cruise will be making a movie on the International Space Station, with assists from NASA, SpaceX and a startup called Axiom Space.
Other trends to watch: The Mars missions mounted by NASA, China and the United Arab Emirates are all scheduled to reach the Red Planet in February, due to the cold hard facts of orbital mechanics. Once the Biden administration takes office, there may be adjustments in the timetable for NASA’s Artemis missions to the moon. Stratolaunch, the space company that was founded by the late Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and changed hands in 2019, expects to resume honest-to-goodness flight tests of the world’s largest airplane in 2021. And as if that’s not enough, there’s a Supermoon eclipse on May 26 that should be visible from Seattle. So watch the skies — and hope they’re clear!