2013 in Review – Part I

Hello, and Happy New Year! Thanks for stopping by while you are hopefully enjoying a New Year’s break with friends or family. Last year, my 2012 in Review post was a link style post of discoveries made, missions launched, and heroes lost throughout the year. Reading that post again, it doesn’t give a real feel for the lay of the land, or the lay of space, if you will. Therefore, in the spirit of New Year Resolutions, this year I resolve to spend some extra effort and write a more op-ed style summary of 2013. So read on to get my impression of the triumphs, losses, and curiosities of 2013 as I see them.

Part I – NASA’s present and future

I have never liked the phrase “mixed bag”, but that’s really what the world of spaceflight has been over the past 12 months, especially if you have a balanced interest, as I do, in Earth science, planetary science, manned spaceflight, and commercial development. Space exploration is dominated by NASA and its government-given budget. Therefore, it is hard to ignore the impact of the American government’s indecision and disagreement when it comes to NASA funding, and the impact that has on our industry as a whole. NASA continues to get a relatively flat budget, which stagnates growth. But you can’t begrudge the American government too much for this – most people agree that our federal government should do something about the deficit; all agencies are being asked to do with less. The story of 2013 isn’t that NASA is getting a flat budget, it is specifically how NASA has chosen to distribute that money.

NASA continues to generously fund the growth of commercial resupply missions to ISS as well as the development of a new exploration system consisting of the Orion crew capsule and the SLS rocket. When combined with the annual operating budget of ISS, this exploration funding amounted to around 44% in both 2013 and 2012. We can see the results of this spending in a very successful year for SpaceX and Orbital Sciences (one successful ISS resupply flight each and 3 other combined test flights and no major failures) and the steady progress that the Orion capsule is making towards the first flight next fall. However, on the other side of the agency, Planetary Science has slid from 8.5% to 6.7% of the budget (here is my source for budget numbers). This doesn’t sound like much, but the dollar amount is nearly $300 million less than the planetary science community is used to. What this led to in 2013 is the beginning of the budget squeeze;  it looks as though the coming decade will have far less new planetary science missions than the American public has gotten used to from the golden ages of funding in the 1990s and 2000s. I know you probably like pictures, because I do too, so here’s a chart from the Planetary Society that can help put it into perspective.

NASA planetary science funding over time

As you can see, less money means fewer missions. The reason 2013 was full of great science results and pictures, despite budget woes, is because of the funding that launched so many great spacecraft over the past 10 years – MER rovers, Curosity rover, MESSENGER, Cassini, Juno, New Horizons, all of the Mars orbiters, Dawn, MAVEN, LADEE, LRO. All of these spacecraft were built and launched under an earlier year’s budgets. This highlights the core contradiction of where we found ourselves in 2013 in planetary science. Stunning pictures from Saturn and Mars come in daily from Opportunity, Curiosity, and Cassini, while planetary scientists are very concerned about the future. As NASA funding is funneled into the James Webb Space Telescope and the 2020 Mars rover (both missions I hope to see launched!), the American expertise when it comes to solar system exploration may, for a time, be funneled through the camera lenses of just a few spacecraft.

My intent is not to express an opinion about how much money NASA should get – or even what percentage should be given to planetary science versus other programs – but merely to paint a picture of the internal conflict (and conflict with the public perception of NASA) that started with the budget cuts in 2012 and will continue as long as NASA’s budget remains flat. Just look at this amazing view of Mount Sharp on Mars, from the Curiosity rover, a marvel of science and engineering…

The foothills of Mount Sharp on Mars

The Curiosity rover (and her older sometimes forgotten sister Opportunity) continues to inspire the enthusiast and layman alike. Budget or not, NASA has a mastery of robotic exploration, and demonstrated it in 2013 by continuing to operate missions successfully. NASA did lose two missions in 2013 – Kepler and Deep Impact/EPOXI – but both had technically fulfilled their primary missions.

While planetary science missions are usually the “best foot forward” for NASA, 2013 showed us that the public still loves our astronauts and finds manned spaceflight worthwhile. As I wrote last year, 2012 was the year that NASA’s astronaut office realized the importance and potential of online social media. The active ISS crews in 2013 took this to heart and turned Expeditions 34 and 35 during the first half of the year into an internet sensation, mainly due to the charismatic presence of Commander Chris Hadfield on Youtube and Twitter (here’s a Flickr stream of Hadfield’s mission).

Hadfield was special in that he combined the constant joy of being in space (which is not unique to him at all) with an open and emotional personality, a desire to share, and artistic talent. That last one locked in the “sensation” part. All impressive for someone who is first – professionally – a fighter pilot.

If NASA is crafty, it will take advantage of the enthusiasm for Hadfield and the ISS program before it has time to fade (which I hope it won’t!) and direct it into support for future programs like SLS and Orion and the Asteroid Retrieval and Utilization mission. In case you missed it, the ARU is the plan to send a spacecraft to a Near Earth Asteroid, capture that asteroid, and return it to Earth, all with human astronauts aboard. The ARU was announced by NASA leadership in the spring of 2013. As I wrote about in late April, the plan got somewhat less excitement from the public than was probably hoped.

The problem with ARU, and NASA’s current approach to manned spaceflight overall, is context and an end goal. When asked to explain the initiative this spring, NASA stated that the mission will integrate the best of our science and technology, while utlizing the new Orion and SLS systems, while at the same time keeping “…NASA on target to reach the President’s goal of sending humans to Mars in the 2030s.” The question is, is NASA’s focus on planetary defense and asteroid deflection or is it just an excuse to test technology for going to Mars? NASA leadership is quoted as saying that Mars is a priority and that the moon is not even being considered. Yet, no clear internal roadmap or guiding set of priorities outlines the timeline and rationale for future exploration missions. Instead it often feels to the public like NASA is searching for missions to justify new hardware, rather than the other way around.

It may very well be that NASA knows where it is going, but is simply in the necessary doldrums. Stuck in between manned launch vehicles (the dreaded “gap”) there is a lack of inspiration for the public. NASA may just need some results, some action, when it comes to these grand future plans, and the public will jump onboard. Orion’s first (unmanned) flight is less than a year away. The Exploration Flight Test (EFT-1) will send Orion up to almost 4,000 miles to test out the heat shield on a blazing fast re-entry. Will this mission inspire and excite? It is possible. It could be that more results and less talk will cause the roadmap to also become more clear. For now, talk is cheap, and that is essentially NASA’s problem – lots of talk, and a cheap government.

Talk is also cheap in the continuously emerging private sector, and yet somehow they seem to inspire somewhat more excitement. I will explore the new private initiatives of 2013, and their impact on the spaceflight industry, in part II of my 2013 year in review.

January 1, 2014 3:44 am

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