Saturday, December 24, 2011

2011: The Year in Review

Video of the Comet Lovejoy filmed by astronaut Dan Burbank aboard the International Space Station on December 21. Video source: NASA.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way - in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

— Charles Dickens
A Tale of Two Cities

When the Soyuz TMA-03M docked on December 23 at the International Space Station, its arrival put the punctuation mark to the end of an historic year in spaceflight.

"Historic" can mean good or bad depending on your perspective.

For many, 2011 means a year that the Space Shuttle came to an end, and thousands of workers lost their jobs — seven years after President George W. Bush announced in January 2004 that the Shuttle program would end once the International Space Station was completed.

For many others, 2011 will be remembered as the year that commercial cargo and crew programs inched closer to a new chapter in human spaceflight — saving the ISS from a projected shutdown in 2015, and unleashing new technologies that promise to bring down the cost of access to Low Earth Orbit (LEO).

These two groups found themselves in conflict with each other, due to scarce federal funding. Members of Congress were largely apathetic to human spaceflight unless the money would be spent in their districts. Most of the representatives on the space subcommittees fought to delay commercial space, claiming that these "NewSpace" industries were untested and unreliable, while ignoring the deaths caused by the government space program and the monopolistic costs charged by Russia to fly U.S. astronauts to the ISS.

Another schism persisted. Some of those who dreamed of another Apollo program to the Moon dismissed any potential value from the ISS, believing that exploration can only be defined by flights outside LEO. Never mind the rapidly accumulating evidence from the first six-month ISS tours of duty showing all sorts of health problems caused by long-duration spaceflight.

At least there appeared to be some consensus amongst all these warring factions that a lot of cool photos, video and data were returned by robotic probes and ISS astronomical observation.

Video of the Aurora Australis filmed aboard the International Space Station on September 17, 2011. Video source: NASA.

NASA's Kepler mission discovered the first "Goldilocks Zone" planet, the first possibly habitable planet discovered outside our solar system.

The DAWN mission arrived at the asteroid Vesta, sending back unprecedented low-altitude images of one of the largest asteroids in the solar system.

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and Opportunity rover continued to add to the accumulating evidence that water once flowed on the Martian surface. On November 26, the Mars Science Laboratory launched for Mars. Scheduled to arrive in August 2012, it will look for evidence that the substances necessary for life once existed in Gale Crater, just south of the Mars equator.

And perhaps most awesome of all, the two Voyager probes launched in the 1970s are poised to exit our solar system, about to enter interstellar space.

Some falsely claim that the current administration has brought space exploration to an end.

I say, we're only getting started.

After months of delays, some caused by Russian flight failures and others to satisfy NASA bureaucracy, SpaceX will launch its Dragon capsule on February 7, atop a Falcon 9 at Cape Canaveral Launch Complex 40. Their goal is to demonstrate they can deliver cargo to the ISS. If all goes well, SpaceX will begin a contract for twelve cargo deliveries — and start to reduce a backlog of NASA experiments.

A video animation summarizing the SpaceX commercial cargo and crew programs. Video source: SpaceX.

Right behind SpaceX is Orbital Sciences, which hopes to send its cargo module Cygnus to the ISS in the spring.

Much rides on these cargo vehicles, and it's not just the payload.

During an October 26 hearing, most members of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology dismissed warnings by their invited guests that further delays in commercial funding would only benefit Russia — which lost five unmanned probes and satellites to launch failures in 2011. This losing streak raised legitimate concerns in the United States about the technical reliability of our Russian partners, but some members on the House committee actually suggested the U.S. would be better off continuing to fly our astronauts on Soyuz rockets rather than risk flying on American vehicles built under the Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) program.

Their real motivation, in my opinion, is to protect the pork coming to their district for the space-industrial complex — an alliance between NASA space centers, their major contractors, and the unions that work there. NewSpace threatens this order which funnels billions of government dollars each year into a few places across the nation — never mind audits and studies showing the inefficient and hidebound nature of this system.

Successful flights by SpaceX and Orbital Sciences in 2012 will make it harder for these politicans to argue that upstart aerospace companies can't be trusted. (Not that this particular Congress shows any inclination that they care what voters think.) Failures will set back the cause of commercial flight, and in particular commercial human spaceflight, perhaps for the foreseeable future.

Critics have falsely claimed that the current administration cut the NASA budget. The truth is that the White House has attempted to raise the NASA budget every year, only to have Congress cut it.

The CCDev budget for the current fiscal year was $500 million. The White House asked for $850 million to accelerate crew vehicle development so NASA would have a domestic alternative to Soyuz by 2015. But the House approved only $300 million and the Senate $512 million. The two houses split the difference and settled on $406 million. NASA believes this funding cut will delay operational status until 2017, keeping astronauts on Soyuz two more years.

But if SpaceX and Orbital Sciences succeed, it will help those few arguing for more funding.

I'm also a strong believer in microgravity research, which will be the real financial driver for LEO.

Microgravity research has already led to a potential salmonella vaccine, and the same company which led that research is now working on a vaccine for MRSA, the worst form of staph infections that kills thousands every year.

An Astrogenetix video on salmonella and MRSA research aboard the International Space Station. Video source: Astrogenetix.

The ISS also serves as an excellent testbed for the consequences of long-duration human spaceflight. Early research shows astronauts serving six-month tours of duty may suffer eye damage, severe bone loss and heart atrophy. It's six to nine months one-way to Mars, so before we seriously contemplate such a trip we have much more to learn.

Commercial human spaceflight will not only make it cheaper and easier for researchers to access the ISS, but later in the decade they may have the Bigelow Aerospace space station as a private alternative.

We've come a long way in 2011. We stand at the beginning of a new adventure in human spaceflight. Too many entrepreneurs with a lifelong track record of success are now involved in NewSpace to dismiss it as a fad bankrolled by rich kooks. And another company, Stratolaunch Systems, entered the field earlier this month with yet another innovative design proposal.

All this is possible because the Obama administration was willing to challenge the sclerotic bureaucracy of the space-industrial complex and open the door to private innovation.

So I prefer to see this as the best of times. A season of Light. And the spring of Hope.

Everything is before us.

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