What Goes Up... Sends Knowledge Down
2005 was a year of great developments in space, along with a few
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.