2012 was a year of a great many newsworthy and exciting space activities. Provided for your review are a few highlights.
Residents around the Washington, DC area turned out in April to greet space shuttle Discovery as she flew over the city before landing for display at the National Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center near Dulles Airport. You can visit the museum and walk around Discovery, as well as see a great many historic airplanes and aerospace artifacts.
Following Discovery’s arrival, the landing-test shuttle Enterprise was flown from Dulles to New York City for display at the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space museum. In October, Endeavour flew across the country to Los Angeles, where residents were delighted as the shuttle navigated city streets to the California Science Center. Atlantis took a 10 mile drive in November to her new display building at the Kennedy Space Center’s Visitor’s Center.
While the shuttle retirement journeys were bittersweet moments, the shuttles are now on display to inspire everyone. In several years, commercial launch companies will once again launch American astronauts to space on American rockets.
In May, Space X launched the first test cargo mission which docked with ISS, and in October launched the first official cargo supply mission to ISS. Two launches are scheduled for 2013. The same model rocket and a manned version of the Dragon capsule will be used for crewed launches, perhaps as early as 2015.
Curiosity (Mars Science Laboratory) arrived on Mars in August following a risky “seven minutes of terror” landing; and has already discovered an ancient stream bed, taken stunning photos, and returned important scientific data. Curiosity also discovered that radiation levels on Mars are lower than expected, making it safer for humans to one day walk and live on the red planet.
Felix Baumgartner jumped from the edge of space on October 14 from 128,100 feet, setting the world’s record.
Our moon/Mars rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS) passed its preliminary design review this month, and is now ready for construction. Just as the day came when workers started to bend sheet metal and construct the mighty Saturn V rocket which took Apollo 11 to the moon, we will now be constructing the next generation of rockets to return American astronauts to the moon and to go on to Mars and beyond.
Testing and construction proceeded throughout the year on the Orion capsule, which will house our astronauts on deep space voyages.
The Messenger space probe discovered hints of water ice on Mercury this year! It may seem counter-intuitive that the planet closest to the sun might have ice, but some craters at the poles never see even a ray of sunlight. It is not impossible to imagine a future robotic or human base on Mercury; made possible thanks to the water, oxygen and rocket fuel which can be created from the ice.
The world paused and mourned on August 25 when Neil Armstrong passed away. Armstrong’s simple yet powerful statement as he stepped onto the lunar surface will be remembered throughout history; “that’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” Those words were not the creation of a speech writer, but Armstrong’s own feelings developed during the Apollo 11 mission. Perhaps no person is as widely known and revered as Armstrong. His calmness while under stress and humbleness characterized him truly as the “Right Stuff.”
The International Space Station houses six astronauts: two Americans, three Russians and one from a partner nation. This year NASA announced a one-year mission being planned for 2015. This is an important step for ISS, for it helps simulate a Mars voyage and allows for testing many technologies and procedures to help keep astronauts healthy during long voyages; and to benefit medical advances for the elderly on Earth. In 2012, more than 200 research experiments were conducted on ISS, and we now have fish in orbit–the ‘Aquatic Habitat’ will allow for ease in studying the effects of radiation and zero gravity. Photos and videos from ISS this year brought home incredible views of Earth and space, and we’ll see even more next year.
December marked the 40th anniversary of Apollo 17, the final Apollo mission to the moon. The moon is where we will learn how to live on Mars, and a research base on the moon is the next proper step towards a safe Mars expedition. We must resolve to not let Gene Cernan’s and Harrison Schmitt’s last footsteps remain the last American footsteps on the moon. Given the political will and unified support from space advocates, we could be back on the moon by 2020 and reach Mars by about 2030.
Early in December, NASA announced plans for the next rover for Mars. A “Curiosity 2.0” will leverage proven hardware for a lower-risk and cost launch in 2020. Many scientists have protested the omission from the plans for collecting rock samples for later return to Earth; a top priority for planetary scientists, and essential for an eventual human Mars landing. Given sufficient protests, it is possible this capability will be restored as had been planned for an earlier 2018 rover plan.
In sum, Americans have a great deal to be proud of and excited about as we explore space.
The greatest threats to our space program are not technical, but from a lack of leadership and from budget cuts. Cuts will delay or result in cancelling existing and planned missions including our ability to send Americans beyond Earth orbit. Lack of leadership will keep NASA without defined missions and thereby not get the public excited about a bold future of exploration.
Readers are encouraged to contact their members of Congress (202-224-3121) and the White House (202-456-1111) to urge their support for increasing, not cutting NASA’s budget. Correct prioritization of scarce funding does not mean cutting science, but to invest more in maintaining America’s technological leadership.
A look forward at space activities and launches planned for 2013 will be published soon; subscribe now for more space news.