The 2014 Space Review: Is NASA Back From the Dead?
The Orion launch was the highlight in NASA's very good year.
Photo courtesy of NASA
This wasn't a year to moonwalk about, but 2014 still ended up being a pretty nifty year for that final frontier known as space.
It seems like almost everyone got a little piece of the action. Way over in India, the space agency Isro got a low-cost probe in Mars' orbit on the first crack. In fact, Mars was a big theme this year, as trendy with global super powers as the moon was back in the 1960s. NASA had some wins with certain Martian-type things: the rover Curiosity made a few key discoveries while tooling around the red planet this year. For one thing, the rover detected some methane gas spikes on the planet, meaning that there just might possibly be something alive over there and it just might possibly have gas. Curiosity also found a rock sample that had organic material in it. That and the possible evidence of water on Mars are all promising indicators that there could in fact be something on Mars.
Plus, alien enthusiasts have been crawling all over the footage Curiosity is beaming back to Earth and they think they've really found something. Specifically, some are convinced that they've spotted a small, coffin-shaped box on the planet, just the right size for small, gray Martians. Scientists have explained this away, arguing that humans have a habit of seeing familiar things in unfamiliar images, but there are some still chomping at the bit in the hopes that Curiosity will turn around and go take a closer look at that possible alien coffin.
Meanwhile, the European Space Agency (yeah, we forgot they exist too) pulled off a nifty feat with the Rosetta probe a couple of months ago. The Rosetta probe became the first space probe to successfully orbit a comet. Then Philae, the module attached to the probe, actually performed a soft landing on the comet's surface, also an impressive accomplishment. Aside from all that, the ESA proved to be incredibly savvy with their social media skills. They promoted the mission - and there were even some really darling Twitter handles tweeting on behalf of Rosetta and Philae, respectively - and if the mission itself didn't gather enough attention, the social media-ness of it all made it hard to miss.
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Meanwhile, NASA, after years of aimless loitering, seemed to finally gain a sense of purpose this year. When the Constellation program that was supposed to take us back to the moon was cancelled in 2010, NASA became a space agency without any real point. This hit particularly hard here in Houston at the Johnson Space Center. After all, manned space flight is the thing that the JSC is famous for and suddenly there was no shuttle, no Constellation and only a vague cobbled together Congressional brainchild of a mission, the Space Launch System, to work on. Meanwhile the NASA budget was slashed seemingly every time it went near the budgetary chopping block, almost half the astronauts had left the program and many of the most talented people at NASA were leaving for private enterprise. The whole thing was sinking into a quagmire of pointless bureaucracy. And then this year things finally started to happen. (Well, aside from NASA completing a more than $349 million tower in Mississippi and then promptly shuttering the project, according to the Washington Post, of course.)
There are claims that NASA has an actual mission now: to lasso and visit an asteroid by the 2020s and to get to Mars by the 2030s. While many in the know scoff at this purported mission, NASA has still been actually doing things this year. For one thing, the space agency decided to stop relying on Russia to get astronauts to the International Space Station. They started the commercial space flight program and tapped SpaceX and Boeing, respectively, to design vehicles to get astronauts into space from U.S. soil. Considering the ratcheting up of tensions between the countries this year, that's probably not a bad idea.
Then there was NASA's big one this year. No, we're not talking about that NASA-contracted Orbital Antares rocket that exploded after liftoff. Just this month, NASA launched Orion, the craft that it is hoped will one day transport astronauts to Mars. After being scrubbed during the first attempt (due to high winds and an errant boat) the launch took off on December 5, and it was flawlessly executed.
When Orion finally rocketed into the sky it was one of those really big moments, because for the first time in recent cultural memory, NASA was doing something different, something big and the excitement was palpable. Even better, for us here in Houston, was what happened shortly after the launch. That was when the folks at Houston's own Johnson Space Center took over and started running the show as they put Orion through its paces. The JSC, home of manned spaceflight, used to control the shuttle program, Constellation and the ISS, but the agency has lost almost half of its astronauts in the past few years and the JSC only has the ISS and Orion to wrangle these days. As a center that has been sidelined in recent years, Orion was a signal that JSC still has some life in it yet.
If things actually keep moving forward with the space program, we'll look back on that first Orion launch as the start of a new era, maybe the era that takes us to Mars or even just back to the moon (a lot of that will depend on who ends up in the White House in the coming years). If NASA again stalls out and is left without proper funding and without any clear-cut reason for existence, then we'll all be able to look back on that glorious moment when a heavy rocket lifted Orion from the Cape Canaveral launchpad surrounded by plumes of flame as the last great gasp of promise from the organization that once put the first man on the moon. But that's all stuff we can worry about next year.