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Sat, Dec 31, 2005

2005 -- Year-In-Review: Space

What Goes Up... Sends Knowledge Down

2005 was a year of great developments in space, along with a few great disappointments.

NASA's manned space program is in a state of flux, trying to keep the shuttle program going while standing up the new CEV (below), which turns its back on Shuttle technology as a costly, dangerous dead end... at least for now. (And NASA is striving, not incidentally, to keep 20,000 people who work on the Shuttle employed... to Congress, everything is a welfare program). 

Canceling the International Space Station is a non-starter. The US twisted too many arms to make the station happen, to be able to back down now. But in retrospect, a station that can't be built without more shuttle flights than the shuttle fleet can do, isn't looking like a great decision.

But the Shuttle mission was completed safely; the robotic missions are mostly on track (and in the case of Spirit and Opportunity, far beyond expectations), and new entrants -- both nations, and private parties -- continue to move towards space.

January

Bruce McCandless, Joe Allen and Gordon Fullerton (below) were announced asthe next class to be elevated to the US Astronaut Hall of Fame. Their accomplishments included an untethered spacewalk, the first space salvage mission that recovered two satellites to Earth, and bringing a shuttle orbit to safe orbit despite an engine failure. They were actually inducted in a ceremony in April

April

Ever-optimistic NASA appoints a class of nine new flight directors, the people who lead manned space flight operations. The first flight director, Christopher Kraft, served through the pioneering sixties, but now NASA has many more flight directors than prospects for flights. In all, 58 men and women have served as FDs.

Mars Rover Opportunity got stuck in a sand dune... and stayed stuck until efforts of NASA scientists freed it, in June.

May

NASA Goddard Center scientists observe the birth of a black hole. Two neutron stars collide, throwing off a burst of intense gamma rays and a flash of light... and then collapse. The event's name, GRB050509b, trips right off the tongue. Given the distance, the event didn't happen in 2005, but 2.2 billion years ago... the flash of light and radiation is what got here in 2005.

June

Carnegie Institute astronomers find a planet... orbiting Gliese 876, in the constellation Aquarius, ushering in the age of... no, seriously. The significance is that this is a relatively small, almost Earth-like one -- although it's 7.5 times Earth's mass, so you'd have to be Sean D. Tucker to stand up there. Most of the 150 planets found around other stars since the first was documented in 1995 are gas giants like Jupiter. Before 1995, scientists used to argue about whether there were planets around other stars. Now they don't.

July

CalTech Scientists find an object larger than Pluto and outside Pluto's orbit, orbiting the sun. Scientists debate whether to call it a planet, as the CalTech team would like to... they're still debating.

July 4: NASA's Deep Impact spacecraft slams into the comet Tempel I. (OK, technically, the comet, moving much faster, banged into Deep Impact at 23,000 mph, as scheduled). The impact was observed by Deep Impact's own flyby spacecraft, the Hubble space telescope, the ESA Rosetta spacecraft and numerous terrestrial observatories. Delighted scientists are still studying the mountain of data the impact produced.

July-August

Discovery blasted off July 26 with a dramatic return to flight, returning safely to land on August 9. The mission delivered supplies to and performed repairs on the International Space Station, with several spacewalks by shuttle  mission specialists. But the jubilation soured when it became clear the tile-adhesion problem that led to the loss of Columbia and crew in 2003  -- and that NASA addressed comprehensively during a costly 2 1/2 year stand-down -- was not solved. Other things being equal, the shuttle would probably be retired now, but lack of a replacement that can deliver outsize components to the ISS, and reluctance to release the 20,000 staff and contractors whose livelihoods depend on the Shuttle, keep in on the schedule till 2010.

August

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter launched on August 12. This spacecraft will send back data from Mars orbit, as the name suggests, that will be useful in planning future Mars missions as well as directly helpful in studying the red planet.

September

The Crew Exploration Vehicle, NASA's next manned spacecraft, resembling a larger Apollo modular craft with command, service and landing modules, is introduced to the public, bringing to life the new vision for space proposed by the President in 2004. By 2010 the new ship is supposed to be carrying men and materiel to the ISS (and the shuttles will hang in museums). By 2018, the CEV (which needs a better name) takes four people to the moon; and with the new technology they can land on places (like the lunar poles) that were out of reach to Apollo, stay longer, and bring more stuff down -- and back. There are no bridesmaids in the CEV, unlike the Apollo command module pilot who kept the home fires burning in lunar orbit till the explorers returned. The CEV CM is fully automated, and the whole crew goes down to the moon -- or, someday, Mars.

October

The X-Prize Foundation kept itself alive in 05 with the "Countdown to the X-Prize Cup," an event combining space-related presentations and a space expo (the CEV mockup was there) with a variety of flight attempts. While the XCOR EZ-Rocket, in its role as Rocket Racing League demonstrator, soared, Starchaser Industries blew up a Churchill Mk2 engine in a spectacular fireburst, and Armadillo Aerospace's technology demonstrator finished a bold VTOL demonstration in high winds by toppling over, suffering damage that sidelined it. Aero-News covered the Countdown extensively.

While that was going on, SpaceShipOne, the first private spacecraft, was being added to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum Milestones of Flight Gallery on the Mall in Washington.

China made its second manned space launch, the Shenzhou 6 capsule, on October 12. Taikonauts Fei Junlong and Nie Haisheng spent five days in orbit before landing safely in China.

November

The International Space Station marked a milestone -- five years of continuous manned operations -- with little fanfare. Part of the problem is that with the Shuttle program in such disarray, the station can't be further constructed, and is in caretaker mode. An additional problem is that compared with the dramatic science accomplished by Hubble, the scientific accomplishments of the incomplete station are scant.

November 7: NASA astronomers at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, saw (and filmed) a meteor strike the moon. They're watching the moon as part of the preparation for coming lunar flights in the years ahead. (The image above is an artist's impression).

The Japanese Hayabusa (Falcon) spacecraft (below) landed twice on an asteroid, and is believed to have recovered asteroid material. Unfortunately, a technical problem has delayed the craft's return to Earth from its original 2007 time frame to 2010... and the robot ship is out of communication at this time.

December

We held our breath with the crew of SpaceX's first satellite launch, as several launch windows came and went. The pioneering private spacecraft, which is launching a research satellite built by the Air Force Academy, was delayed by a variety of problems, many of which stem from being an upstart trying to launch on military ranges controlled by the same defense contractor launch monopoly that SpaceX's new launch vehicles threaten. They may finally launch in January.

Mars Rovers Spirit and Opportunity, designed for a life of 90 Martian Sols, have completed more than one Mars year and are still on the job after about 700 sols each. It isn't just the robust design of the tough little machines, but the canny skills of their drivers, who drive up the hills to catch the low-angled winter sun and get the machines unstuck from sand or rocks with only the resources on board and instructions that they can datalink across interplanetary space.

The science produced by these little rovers is remarkable, too, answering questions about whether Mars ever had liquid water (a resounding yes) and not quite answering others (is there any liquid water there now?). At least, not yet.

Orbiters All Year Long

Mars continues to be observed by orbiters that have been in place there since before the beginning of the year, including Global Surveyor. Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is enroute.

The Hubble Space Telescope continues to explore the cosmos from Earth orbit.

Finally, NASA/ESA/Italian Space Agency's Cassini-Huygens probe, launched in 1997 and orbiting Saturn since July 2004, spent all of 2005 studying the moons of Saturn (above), with the Huygens probe descending to Titan's surface in January 2005.

FMI: www.nasa.gov, www.xcup.org, www.spacex.com2005 Year-in-Review Comments?

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