13 Stories in 2010 that defined space exploration

2010 was a big year in space news. It was filled with promise, uncertainty, and ultimately bright hopes for the future. We tested amazing new technologies, made breathtaking discoveries, and passed major milestones. If the past year showed us anything, it’s that even though we might be moving in fits and starts, we’re still on the right track. These then are 13 stories that helped define the past year in space. A New Era: Space X

Arguably the biggest space story of the last year, there aren’t enough superlatives to describe what Space X achieved in 2010. Elon Musk’s brainchild exceeded all expectations in launching not one, but two brand-new private rockets into orbit (not to mention a handful of cubesats and wheel of Le Brouère), and became the first commercial company in history to reenter a spacecraft from Earth orbit. The Falcon 9 and Dragon capsule tests came off essentially without a hitch, and now Space X plans to start supplying the ISS as early as next year and flying manned missions within the next 3 years. If the astounding early success of Space X is any measure, then the future of commercial space, and spacefaring as whole, is remarkably bright.

A Brave New World…Maybe: The NASA Authorization Act

2010 saw fierce debate and political infighting over NASA’s future, leaving the direction of the space agency in flux. But at the 11th hour Congress finally came together to sign a compromise authorization agreement that gives NASA hope for the future. Sure, it’s not as complete as it could be, still clinging to remnants of the Constellation architecture and provisions meant only to placate congressional districts, but the act retains some of the key elements (mainly in the form of retained funding for commercial operations and technology development), necessary for a bright spacefaring future. There was a real risk that we could have ended up with a rehash of Constellation, or worse, perpetual limbo. But what we got was better than could have been hoped for, especially considering the political football that NASA became. Now the only question remains is whether or not the Act will be fully funded. Though the 2010 budget has been extended until March 2011, what happens beyond that is anyone’s guess.

China Starts Showing the ‘Right Stuff’

Now before anyone goes off on a neo-Cold War rant about how much of a potential threat China may or may not be as a space power, let me just say that I’m of the opinion that the more countries that have spacefaring capability, the better. Space belongs to all of us, not just any one nation. With that being said, China made some big strides in that department in 2010. The Chang’e-2 marked The People’s Republic’s second-ever Lunar mission. They followed that up with an automated rendezvous between two orbiting satellites. And just this month China equaled the United States in sheer number of rocket launches in a year, something not seen since the days of the original Space Race during Cold War. These are pretty big steps to a nation that is relatively new to the space game. Whether or not China’s goal of landing a man on the Moon by 2025 is realistic is another issue entirely, but thus far they’re making the necessary strides.

Engineering the Future: Bobby Braun Named NASA’s Chief Technologist

Throughout 2010, much of the discussion of NASA’s future involved the development of “game-changing” technologies that would allow us to really reach out into space, and who would lead that development. Well, in February NASA got just the man for the job, appointing Bobby Braun as its Chief Technologist. If you’ve ever seen or read an interview with Dr. Braun (and if you haven’t I suggest you start here), it’s easy to see that he has the clarity of vision and dedication necessary to lead the development of these technologies, and spur the innovative thinking necessary to making them a reality. Having cut his teeth on the design and analysis of planetary exploration systems at Langley Research Center, as a member of the design and landing operations team on the Mars Pathfinder program, and as a member of the Mars Sample Return, Surveyor, and Microprobe projects, Dr. Braun is a true believer in the need for and promise of revolutionary technologies in expanding humanity’s reach into space. Dr. Braun’s realistic, forward-thinking vision and leadership is exactly what we’re going to need if we’re ever really going to become a spacefaring society. We could be seeing a case of the right man, in the right place, at the right time. And that’s good for all of us.

Close to the Wind: IKAROS

The concept of using a solar sail (a form of propulsion that uses radiation pressure from the Sun to push ultra-thin mirrors) as a form of spacecraft propulsion has been theorized since at least 1924. Well in 2010, it finally happened. JAXA (Japan’s Space Agency), launched the IKAROS (Interplanetary Kite-craft Accelerated by Radiation of the Sun), experimental spacecraft, becoming the first craft to successfully use solar sail technology in interplanetary space. Eventually IKAROS will travel to the far side of the Sun, but the first successful demonstration of this technology, even at a small scale, is monumental. While the technology admittedly has its limitations (namely in the speed with which it builds acceleration and the larger sail sizes needed as payload size increases), the prospect of having a propulsion source that requires almost no on-board fuel is game-changing indeed. Solar sails are potentially excellent for long-duration space missions, and as the technology matures we may see their increased use in deep-space and interstellar missions.

The X-34: Back From the Dead?

Are we about to see a rebirth of space planes? The Air Force recently tested its super-secret X-37B, and now NASA, thanks to some prodding by private industry and a handful of Dryden engineers, has taken the cancelled X-34 out of storage with the intent of returning it to flight-testing status. Originally built by Orbital Sciences, the rebirth of the X-34 could be a boon to the commercial space industry, providing a ready-made launch vehicle. If these robotic birds check out, NASA plans to open up their use to space entrepreneurs and private launch companies are chomping at the bit for the opportunity. This would represent a drastic change in our approach to exploration of space, moving to a sustainable, lower-cost future. Only time will tell how this plays out, but having these options back on the table bodes well for increasing access to space.

NASA and the GLXP: The Innovative Lunar Demonstrations Data Program

With registration closing on December 31, the Google Lunar X Prize competition is really starting to swing into high gear. And in 2010 some of the participants were lucky enough to get a little extra funding boost from the big boys. NASA offered six contacts, worth anywhere from $10,000 to $10 million, to GLXP teams under its Innovative Lunar Demonstrations Data (ILDD) program. The idea is to purchase data from the teams on how to operate a low-cost mission to the moon. Not only do these kinds of programs help win competitions by providing some extra funding and incentive, but this kind of investment is just the thing that will help streamline NASA, jump-start the private space industry, and ultimately lead to opening up space to the rest of us.

Masten Space and Armadillo Win NASA’s First CRuSR Contracts

NASA’s Commercial Reusable Suborbital Research Program (or CRuSR for short) aims to spur the growth of access to near-space and facilitate microgravity research in that environment. Well, in 2010 the space agency awarded almost half of a million dollars to two private space companies (Masten Space Systems and Armadillo Aerospace), to do just that. These mark the first such awards under the program, and are hopefully just the beginning of future private-public collaboration. This kind of seed investment is critical to kickstarting the private space industry and is an essential part of NASA’s new direction.

Space Tourism Preps for Launch

We all know about Virgin Galactic and the atmospheric tests of White Knight Two and SpaceShip Two. But 2010 also saw other big steps in space tourism development. Spaceport America broke ground in the New Mexico Desert. XCOR signed agreements to provide craft to Space Experience Curacao, which in turn hopes to offer suborbital trips from the Netherlands Antilles by 2014. Space Adventures signed up with Armadillo Aerospace to offer sub-orbital trips to customers for half the price of Virgin Galactic. The past year saw a flurry of activity geared at developing a space tourism industry, and when it takes off, 2010 will be seen as a seminal year in its development.

The Explosion of “Citizen-Space”

While space conferences, forums, and festivals have been around for several years now, 2010 saw perhaps the greatest saturation of these events to date. From the NewSpace Conference, to Yuri’s Night, to the newcomer, SpaceUP, the past year saw dramatic growth in the effort to get more people involved in shaping our future in space. If we’re really going to transform ourselves into a spacefaring society, we need to get everyone involved, and these kinds of events are what will make that happen. 2011 is primed to see even more of these events, with SpaceUP alone seeing repeats in San Diego and Washington, DC, as well as new ‘unconferences’ in Houston and Minneapolis. Combine this with the enthusiastic reception of NASA Tweetups and the Google Lunar X Prize heating up, and the odds of really bringing space to the masses seem pretty high.

A Whole New Light: The Solar Dynamics Observatory

Launched in February 2010 as part of NASA’s ‘Living With a Star’ program, the Solar Dynamics Observatory set out to understand the Sun’s influence on Earth and near-Earth space. By investigating the Sun’s magnetic field, and how it is generated, SDO can teach us how to guard against solar events that might disrupt our lives back on Earth (for example, interfering with telecommunications instruments, GPS devices, etc.). And of course, who can forget those breathtaking images (not to mention everyone’s favorite rubber chicken)? The SDO is a major step towards fundamentally understanding our home star, and with it our place in the solar system.

A Home Among The Stars: The ISS Sets Record for Human Habitation in Space

2010 marks ten years of permanent human habitation on the ISS, ever since the launch of Expedition 1 on October 31, 2000. It’s a milestone achievement, one that hopefully leads the way to larger permanent human settlements away from Earth. It is a tribute to the feat of engineering and will that is the International Space Station, and a testament to the capability and dogged ingenuity of human beings. Now with the proposed life of the ISS extended by several more years, out to 2020, there is the promise of being able to learn even more about surviving, and even thriving, in space, and further establishing our permanence as a spacefaring people.

Memoriam for ‘Spirit’?

On March 22, 2010, Mars Exploration Rover – A, better known as Spirit, had its last communication with controllers back on Earth. No one yet knows for sure if Spirit was able to survive the Martian winter, but if this was the last we’ve heard of it, it’s certainly had quite a run. Originally planned to last for only a little over 90 days, Spirit (and its counterpart Opportunity), trundled along for well over six full years (Earth years, to be more accurate), one of the most remarkable achievements in planetary exploration to date. In that time, Spirit conducted a plethora of geological surveys and sought evidence of whether or not life ever existed on Mars. In addition, the little rover provided us with some of the most stunning images of the Red Planet yet seen, and gave us some perspective on our own place in the solar system. If this is truly goodbye to Spirit, then it will be missed.