Experts weigh in on the year ahead in space
SpaceFlight Insider reached out to experts, astronauts, and up-and-coming players in the space arena to get their view on what they thought would be the major events the public should be on the lookout for in 2016 – and beyond. Their responses were as varied as their backgrounds – highlighting the current dynamic state of space exploration efforts.
For anyone who has ever had to contend with explaining misconceptions, myths, and outright falsehoods, the noted American astronomer Phil Plait has served as a voice of common sense and reason for years with his ‘Bad Astronomy‘ website. Plait has appeared on numerous science and space television programs; for him, the biggest steps made in the coming year will be made by commercial companies.
“For me, the most important event coming up is the preparation Boeing and SpaceX are making to take astronauts back into space in 2017. The U.S. hasn’t had that capability since Atlantis touched down in 2011, and now both companies have contracts from NASA to launch humans once again. It’s been a long time since Americans could do this; but barring the Apollo-Soyuz and Skylab launches, the gap between the last Apollo mission and the first shuttle launch was longer (nine years versus six). I’m an advocate of commercial space, and also skeptical that [the] Space Launch System will be everything it’s planned to be – and even if it goes ahead, it’ll be 2023, at least, before a crewed mission. So, in my opinion, these may be the most important missions flown in a long, long time.”
Excitement about the new space race that is heating up in the private sector has caught the attention of those with extensive experience within the space industry – and they like what they see. One such individual is two-time space shuttle veteran Robert C. Springer, who flew on shuttles Discovery (STS-29) and Atlantis (STS-38) before working with Boeing.
“I still think what is happening in commercial space, not just what one company is doing, but rather the entire spectrum of what has been accomplished and what can be accomplished in the future opens the door to incredible opportunities as we continue to pursue the frontier of space.”
Other astronauts have nodded into the directions of NASA’s efforts to send crews beyond the orbit of Earth. As the agency’s Commercial Crew Program is focused on low-Earth orbit, that means SLS and Orion.
“I think it’s going to be fun to watch the progress of the SLS and Orion as they work towards the 2018 first launch. These are the keys for the multi-generation programs that we’ll rely on to conduct human exploration of deep space for decades. When Qualification Motor -2 is fired during the summer, the booster for SLS will be fully qualified… a huge milestone! All the other elements have key events during the year, as well, although I can’t delineate the events or the schedule for their occurrence. I look forward to seeing where we are one year from now.”
Duffy rode fire to orbit four times on STS-45, STS-57, STS-72, and STS-92 on shuttles Atlantis, Endeavour, and Discovery.
Another space flight veteran, shuttle veteran Tom Jones, split his focus between efforts to explore the Solar System with robotic probes – and further study how the human body reacts to long stays in the microgravity environment.
“Looking skyward, I’m looking forward to the high-resolution scrutiny of dwarf planet Ceres by the Dawn spacecraft, and the launch in September of NASA’s OSIRIS-Rex asteroid sample return probe to near-Earth asteroid Bennu. We’ll celebrate Independence Day of the greatest nation on Earth with the July 4 arrival at the largest planet in the Solar System of NASA’s Juno spacecraft, which will study Jupiter’s composition, gravity field, magnetic field, and polar magnetosphere.
“In human space flight, I’ll want to hear the results in 2016 of Scott Kelly’s one-year long duration mission at ISS, ending in March. His stay in space (with Mikhail Kornienko) exceeds in length that of a one-way journey to Mars. We’ll also see unpiloted flights of Crew Dragon and CST-100 Starliner as SpaceX and Boeing test their space taxi craft in launch abort and recovery tests, readying for crewed flights the following year – U.S. astronauts flying again from U.S. soil. Look for these tests to verify the safety and ruggedness of these new commercial space transports.”
Jones has a new book coming out, Ask the Astronaut, currently set to hit shelves late next month (March 2016). He also is a four-time space flight veteran having flown on shuttle missions STS-59, STS-68, STS-80, and STS-98 on shuttles Endeavour, Columbia, and Atlantis.
For other members of NASA’s elite corps, 2016 is a time to remember what brought the U.S. Space Program to where it is today. Astronaut Nicole Stott, a mission specialist launched to the International Space Station on STS-128 and STS-133 (both on Shuttle Discovery), 2016 is a good time to reflect on what has gone before – as efforts are made on NASA’s new two-pronged approach to crewed space exploration efforts.
“A few years ago my friend, mentor, and fellow astronaut, Mike McCulley, gave me the book Apollo: The Race to the Moon by Charles Murray and Catherine Bly Cox. It is a wonderful account of how we got to the Moon and the lessons we learned along the way – and perhaps more importantly how those lessons impacted the processes we put in place to develop and fly our spacecraft. Significant milestones are still on the schedule in the 2017 and 2018 time frame for human space flight – for both the Commercial Crew Program and the Orion/SLS Program. There is absolutely no reason to re-learn the painful lessons of past programs. Instead, we have an opportunity over this next year to harness the successes of those programs. Now is the time to make certain we apply those lessons learned, to further reinforce the relationships between NASA and the commercial partners and within the NASA team, and to ensure we move towards those milestones with the best possible insight and processes in place and with the best understanding of the risks being accepted.”
For Stott, while it is important to use the lessons learned from the past, proper utilization of the assets on hand is just as, if not more so, vital.
“I think we are just now getting a glimpse of the true potential of the ISS. The duality of mission continues with everything that goes on to run the station as an orbiting facility and all of the wonderful science improving life here on Earth as well as helping us explore further off our planet. The types of scientific research being conducted continues to grow, access to ISS facilities for research continues to improve, and utilization of ISS to demonstrate technologies for not just LEO but also deep space missions further supports the value of maintaining and growing our presence in orbit. The recent success with technologies like 3D printing and small satellite control and deployment is just beginning to be realized, and certainly we can look forward to [a] demonstration of the usefulness of tools like virtual and augmented reality in ways we might never have imagined.”
In the NewSpace era, not everyone involved with space has several degrees (yet) or numerous hours on orbit – some of them are just starting out. Few young people of college-age or younger have done more to promote space flight awareness than Astronaut Abby (Abigail Harrison). Harrison has made her intention to be the first astronaut to step foot on Mars clear – a fact highlighted by her choice for the space event of 2016 to keep an eye out for.
“I am so excited to see the ExoMars joint mission between ESA and ROSCOSMOS, for a variety of reasons. ExoMars is a multi-year long mission which will enhance our understanding of the Martian atmosphere and surface through a series of crafts including a trace gas orbiter (TGO), a landing demonstration module, as well as a surface rover and platform. The TGO and the landing demonstration module are scheduled for 2016, whereas the rover is scheduled for 2018. It’s always exciting to see steps being taken to further our understanding of Mars (a necessary step to make near future human exploration of Mars a reality), but this mission is also exciting because of the international collaboration that has made it possible!”
The views expressed in this editorial are solely those of the contributors and do not, necessarily, reflect those of SpaceFlight Insider.
Jason Rhian spent several years honing his skills with internships at NASA, the National Space Society and other organizations. He has provided content for outlets such as: Aviation Week & Space Technology, Space.com, The Mars Society and Universe Today.