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The wheels of human space exploration might turn very slowly, but all signs indicate they are beginning to turn faster and – if all goes well -finally might reach escape velocity in 2005.
Without a doubt, the future remains cloudy for a number of NASA issues. Until a new NASA administrator is chosen, for example, there is no way to predict what will happen to the Hubble Space Telescope.
Under Sean O’Keefe’s lame duck leadership, the space agency is aggressively pursuing the robot repair option, despite the report of a panel of the National Academy of Sciences that said its probability of success is “remote.”
NASA’s fixation on a robot rescue mission is so complete that on Jan. 6, 2004, it awarded a $154 million contract to MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates, a Canadian company, to design a robot mission concept for doing the repair.
The next NASA administrator could take a different tack on whether Hubble will be repaired by robots or humans.
One major influence on that decision could be the pending flight of its Demonstration for Autonomous Rendezvous Technology spacecraft, or DART, the first attempt by a U.S. robotic spacecraft to perform an automated rendezvous in space.
If NASA truly wants to to send a robot to save Hubble, it will be necessary to test-fly this technology – a capability only available to Russia at present.
Originally scheduled to fly in November, DART’s mission was postponed until this spring when engineers decided they needed more tests to make sure the spacecraft would not shake apart aboard its Pegasus rocket during launch.
The robot vs. human decision relating to Hubble’s repair also will turn on the success of the space shuttle’s return to flight, now planned for May. Though all the pieces seem to be falling into place, unexpected problems still could delay the shuttle’s launch again, thereby threatening NASA’s entire manned program.
This event is particularly critical, because NASA no longer can rely on the Russians to transport American crews to the International Space Station.
Russia now is demanding cash to fly passengers aboard its rockets, but restrictions of the Iran Non-proliferation Act prevents NASA from paying Russia any fees.
So if the shuttle fleet remains grounded after the next space station crew arrives on board in the spring, the astronauts aboard the ISS thereafter could be exclusively Russian.
The new administrator also will have great influence on whether other changes take place at NASA. Though Congress and the president’s Space Commission encouraged NASA in 2004 to increase its use of prizes, such as the Ansari X Prize, to encourage technological development, Congress has not changed NASA’s authorization to award any prize greater than $250,000.
NASA’s new head is going to have to be a skilled lobbyist in order to get these legal limits changed.
The fate of another NASA program also hinges on the next administrator. One of O’Keefe’s pet projects has been the development of nuclear-powered ion propulsion for use by interplanetary spacecraft. Dubbed Project Prometheus, the program’s inaugural probe is the Jupiter Icy Moons Orbiter, recently renamed Prometheus 1 and set for launch in 2015.
The next administrator, however, might not give nuclear propulsion the same priority as O’Keefe.
Though Congress gave NASA all the money it requested for fiscal year 2005, it also required NASA to spend money on a large number – 167 – of unexpected projects, most of which are political earmarks, which leaves funding for President George W. Bush’s space initiative short by about $400 million.
With a budget of $430 million, Project Prometheus’s cost more than matches this shortfall. The next administrator simply might decide to cut O’Keefe’s pet project so the agency can maintain its funding for the president’s space plan.
Despite these uncertainties, 2005 still looks as if it will be a pivotal year for space exploration.
After a year of effort, NASA’s heavy bureaucracy is finally focused on achieving Bush’s ambitious new space vision to return to the moon. Everyone is now on board and ready to move forward.
The factional warfare and office politics have subsided, and the various NASA centers have come to realize this is the future and they had better get on the bandwagon or be left behind.
Sometime this spring, NASA is expected to release its official Request for Proposals on construction of the new Crew Exploration Vehicle, outlining in detail the agency’s requirements for building a shuttle replacement that will make possible the human exploration of the solar system.
Bidding for this particular NASA project should be provocative because, under the leadership of Craig Steidle, NASA’s associate administrator for exploration systems, the agency will pick two companies to build competing prototypes of the CEV.
Only in 2008, when the competitors actually fly the prototypes, will NASA choose a winner and thus make a final decision on the CEV’s design.
Meanwhile, efforts by all the world’s various space agencies to explore the solar system continue unabated. On Friday, Europe’s Huygens probe will land on Saturn’s moon, Titan.
Whether the probe will go bang, splash or squish when it lands is the big question, because the composition of Titan’s surface remains a mystery.
NASA’s Cassini spacecraft continues to orbit the Saturnian system, taking spectacular pictures of the ringed planet and its 33 known moons.
In February, the European Space Agency plans to release the first results from its Smart-1 lunar orbiter, which has been circling the moon since Nov. 15, and slowly adjusting its orbit to its operational configuration of of 1,900 miles by 190 miles.
Then, July 4, NASA’s Deep Impact spacecraft will crash a projectile onto the surface of Comet Tempel 1 and photograph the resulting crater. The mission should provide the first detailed look into the interior of a comet.
On Aug. 2, Messenger, the first mission to Mercury in more than 30 years, will make its first fly-by of Earth. Launched in August 2004, the spacecraft’s circuitous route through the inner solar system will take it past Earth once, Venus twice and Mercury three times before it finally settles into orbit in 2011.
Once there it will attempt to fill in the gaps left when Mariner 10 photographed about half of innermost planet’s surface as it flew past three times in 1974 and 1975.
On Mars, NASA and ESA are hoping not only to keep two Martian rovers and three orbiting satellites functioning, but NASA also will launch its next mission there on Aug. 10.
The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter will carry five instruments, including the most powerful telescope ever sent to another planet, able to see objects on the surface as small as a coffee table.
Other instruments will closely monitor Martian weather as well as scan the planet’s mineralogy, searching for underground layers of water and ice.
In October, the ESA hopes to launch the first mission to Venus since the American Magellan spacecraft ended its four-year exploration in 1994.
Also next fall, Europe will be launching its first Automatic Transfer Vehicle, dubbed Jules Verne, to the space station. Like the Russian Progress freighters, the ATV is an unmanned cargo craft, but it is about five times bigger and will give the station an additional cargo carrier to bring supplies.
Nor is this short review of upcoming events in 2005 even close to complete. For one thing, it leaves out the efforts of China, which has said it will launch its second manned space mission in September, attempting to place two men in orbit for five days. For another, there is the accelerating interest in the private commercial space industry.
In many ways, 2004 appeared to be the year the would-be players moved to the starting blocks, but 2005 looks when the starting gun will fire and the race to colonize the solar system will truly began.
Robert Zimmerman is an independent space historian and the author of “The Chronological Encyclopedia of Discoveries in Space.” His most recent book, “Leaving Earth,” was awarded the Eugene M. Emme Award by the American Astronautical Society for the best popular space history in 2003.