Year in Aerospace: Looking back at Boeing’s troubles, looking ahead to commercial triumphs

Boeing 737 MAX
The first 737 MAX 8 plane undergoes final assembly at Boeing’s Renton plant in 2015. (Boeing Photo)

2019 was a tough year for the aerospace industry — a year when a control system flaw caused the second catastrophic crash of a 737 MAX jet and sparked a worldwide grounding of Boeing’s fastest-selling plane.

Nine months after the Ethiopian Airlines crash, which killed 157 people, the 737 MAX is still grounded. Boeing’s CEO and the head of its commercial airplanes unit have been replaced, and the prospects for the MAX’s return to flight are uncertain.

It’s not a good-news story. But it’s the biggest aerospace story of 2019 — especially for the Puget Sound region, where the 737 MAX and most of Boeing’s bigger airplanes are made.

I’ve been highlighting the top stories on the aerospace beat in year-end roundups for 22 years, and it’s hard to think of a bigger transitional time than 2019-2020 (though 2011-2012, marking the end of the space shuttle era, comes close).

For most of those years, I’ve done this as a list of five top space stories from the year that’s ending, and a list of five top space trends to watch during the year that’s starting. This year, we’re widening the focus to take in aviation developments as well, only in part due to the Boeing story. There’ll be plenty to watch for up above, ranging from the moon and Mars to the airspace above your backyard. Check out these highlights, and feel free to weigh in with your own year-end reviews.

Five top stories from 2019

These top stories focus on aerospace developments, but to revisit the year’s biggest stories in space science — including the first-ever portrait of a black hole and the New Horizons probe’s flyby past a space snowman — click on over to my “Year in Science” roundup.

Boeing’s woes: March’s crash in Ethiopia came after a similar crash in Indonesia less than five months earlier, bringing home the realization that something was seriously wrong with the 737 MAX. The investigation quickly zeroed in on an automatic flight control system that pilots couldn’t override in time, and although Boeing says a software update will solve the problem, the Federal Aviation Administration isn’t expected to sign off on the fix until February or later. This month, Boeing’s board forced out CEO Dennis Muilenburg. It’ll be up to his replacement, Dave Calhoun, to repair Boeing’s reputation, get the 737 MAX back in business, get the twin-aisle 777X to market and give the go-ahead for Boeing’s next airplane project.

Harbour Air’s first electric flight: Electric propulsion could revolutionize the aviation industry — and make people feel less guilty about traveling by air in this age of growing climate-change concerns. Vancouver, B.C.-based Harbour Air and Redmond, Wash.-based MagniX arguably fired the first shot in that revolution this month with the initial flight test of a converted all-electric seaplane. In 2020, MagniX’s corporate cousin, Eviation, is due to start flight tests at Moses Lake in central Washington state for an all-electric airplane that’s built from the ground up. Both planes are on track to win FAA certification by as early as 2021.

Grand satellite projects make their debut: After 2018’s management shakeup at SpaceX’s satellite development facility in Redmond, the company launched its first batch of 60 operational Starlink satellites in May. Another batch followed in November, and the third batch is due for launch a few days from now. SpaceX says Starlink will provide broadband access for billions of people who are currently underserved — but there are questions about the potential market, and about the mega-constellation’s effect on astronomical observations and space traffic management. SpaceX isn’t alone in its aspirations: OneWeb and Telesat are also planning mega-constellations. Amazon’s Project Kuiper, revealed in April, could eventually become Starlink’s biggest rival — with Starlink’s ousted project leader at the helm. And speaking of satellites, February marked the official opening of the LeoStella satellite factory in Tukwila, Wash.

First tests for space taxis: SpaceX faced ups and downs in its test program for the Crew Dragon space taxi, which is designed to transport astronauts to and from the International Space Station. In March, the Crew Dragon made a successful uncrewed test flight to the station and back (with a test dummy nicknamed Ripley strapped into a seat). Then, in April, that very spaceship blew up during an on-the-ground thruster firing test. After months of redesign and further testing, SpaceX now says it’s all systems go for an in-flight test of the Crew Dragon’s abort system next month. CEO Elon Musk tweeted that the first crewed flight could come within a few months. Meanwhile, Boeing’s Starliner space taxi completed its first orbital flight test — an uncrewed tryout that was marred by a timing system glitch.

Moon missions past and future: 2019 marked the 50th anniversary of the historic Apollo 11 landing on the moon, and the occasion was celebrated with appropriate pomp and circumstance. China’s Chang’e-4 probe made the first-ever soft landing on the far side of the moon in January, but two other robotic lunar landing efforts — Israel’s Beresheet mission and India’s Chandrayaan 2 mission — came up short. There were also reflections on the road ahead for lunar exploration and settlement, including NASA’s drive to put astronauts on the moon by 2024. That program has been named Artemis, in honor of Apollo’s twin sister.

Five top trends for 2020

Some of next year’s top trends will be continuations of the past year’s top stories — including Boeing’s anticipated recovery, the buildup for SpaceX’s Starlink satellite constellation and flight tests for Eviation’s built-from-scratch, all-electric airplane. These five trends emphasize new twists in the road ahead.

Prime time for people-carrying spaceships: If all goes according to plan, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon and Boeing’s Starliner space taxi will be carrying actual astronauts to the space station and back by the end of 2020. But that’s not all: The New Shepard suborbital spaceship being developed by Blue Origin, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ space venture, is expected to start carrying passengers next year. And Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipOne rocket plane should begin offering suborbital space trips to paying passengers at Spaceport America in New Mexico within months.

Will flying cars become a reality? Companies ranging from Boeing and Airbus to Opener are developing concepts for personal air vehicles variously known as eVTOLs, air taxis or flying cars. This could be the year those concepts start hitting the market: In February, teams will compete to win a million dollars in the Boeing-backed GoFly Prize fly-off for personal air vehicles. Lift Aircraft, founded by a former Boeing engineer, aims to start giving rides in its Hexa one-seater aircraft within months. And Uber is targeting 2020 for demonstrations of its air taxi system (although commercial fly-sharing service won’t start until 2023.)

Here come the delivery drones: When Amazon Worldwide Consumer CEO Jeff Wilke unveiled the company’s latest prototype for a fleet of delivery drones in June, he said robo-fliers could start “delivering packages to customers in months.” That suggests 2020 could be a banner year for drone deliveries — not only by Amazon, but by Alphabet’s Wing venture, UPS, Zipline, Flirtey and other ventures.

Blue Origin shoots for the moon: New Shepard isn’t the only project that Bezos’ space venture has up its sleeve. Blue Origin is also gearing up for production of New Glenn orbital-class rockets and the BE-4 engines that will power them. The company’s most ambitious project is the Blue Moon lunar landing system, which is being proposed to NASA in league with Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Draper. It’s hard to imagine Blue Moon not being picked for further development when NASA announces its selections next month. No wonder Blue Origin is expanding its headquarters in Kent, Wash.

Mars probes take off: The summer of 2020 will bring the best opportunity in two years to launch probes to Mars, based on orbital mechanics. That explains why several robotic spacecraft are being prepared for trips to the Red Planet: NASA’s yet-to-be-named Mars rover; the European Space Agency’s ExoMars rover (named in honor of DNA pioneer Rosalind Franklin); China’s orbiter/lander/rover combination; and the United Arab Emirates’ Hope Mars orbiter. Meanwhile, NASA’s Curiosity rover is still going strong, seven years after its landing. Who knows? Maybe this time next year, we’ll be writing about the looming traffic jam on Mars.

Previously: A black hole portrait and 2019’s other top science stories