2015 in space: the year of ______

In my first post looking back on 2014 in space, I discussed how the year in spaceflight might be remembered. A few major events happened that may stick in the public’s mind – Rosetta/Philae’s comet encounter and the first Orion capsule launch. For the average person, that may be all they remember from last year. Definitely not a banner year for space, although the world rightly celebrated the triumph of landing on a comet for the first time. So not a bad year either. Overall, as I concluded in that earlier post, 2014 was a building year. For those of us who pay closer attention to space news, 2014 was also a year to worry about policy, budgets, and the future of the launch sector, as I wrote about in my second post.

While 2014 was a building year, 2015 looks to be a year of action. Action that goes beyond just NASA and extends to the “New Space” sector, as SpaceX plows forward aggressively, Virgin Galactic attempts to regroup from last year’s tragedy, and some lesser-knowns like XCOR might have their first flights.

2015 looks to be an exciting year. The question is not whether it will be an exciting or busy year, but rather, what will grab the public’s attention more? Will the old childlike excitement over new discoveries be stirred up by NASA’s ambitious missions arriving at Pluto and the asteroid Ceres? Or will the sexy sleek SpaceX rockets – launching ever more frequently – grab the most headlines?

The Year of the Dwarf Planet?

This will be a big year for NASA’s planetary science program. 2014 had a lot of great action at Mars. Unfortunately, Mars has a “been there, done that” tone for the general public (perhaps the 2015 release of Ridley Scott’s The Martian will help turn that around?). Mars makes headlines if there is a daring rover landing or a manned mission, or of course if we discovered life. Otherwise, Mars is cool, but not front page cool. ESA’s Philae landing on comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko proved that robotic exploration is still front page cool, but that it takes a new destination these days. That’s exactly why 2015 is exciting. Two robotic missions launched almost a decade ago will rendezvous with their destinations: two unexplored worlds, both newly classified as “dwarf planets” back in 2006. There’s a whole new category of world out there which we will get to see for the first time this year.

As I write this, the Dawn spacecraft is mere days away from the March 6th rendezvous with dwarf planet Ceres, king of the asteroid belt. Dawn will go into orbit around the asteroid, where it will stay for the rest of its mission. The popular space blogs have already been getting pretty excited about the high(er) resolution images coming back from the probe, including mysterious bright spots in a crater. Could they be ice geysers? Or something else unexpected?

Latest view of Ceres from Dawn (courtesy: NASA)

Much farther from home, the New Horizons probe is now only months away from a July flyby of distant dwarf planet Pluto. New Horizons was launched in 2006; so long ago that the probe was actually launched before the International Astronomical Union (IAU) made its controversial decision to change the definition of “planet.” Of course, this sets up for the pithy quip that the probe took so long to get there that when it left, Pluto was a planet! I suppose we will be hearing that line a lot more, come July.

The public loves Pluto. So much so that it make front page news back in 2006 just due to a classification debate. I have no doubt that the public will get pretty excited over the upcoming encounter. The mission has all the drama a good space rendezvous needs: the promise of views of a new world and new discoveries with the very real danger of the probe being destroyed by some rogue undiscovered moon. Success or failure, it’s a win-win for the media. People love the tension.

If rendezvous goes well for both Dawn and New Horizons, the American public will be reminded how exciting it is to discover new worlds. That excitement can likely be funneled by NASA and organizations like The Planetary Society into support for future missions like the Europa Clipper. 2015 is a chance for NASA’s crown jewel, planetary science, to take center stage.

The Year of SpaceX?

Unfortunately for NASA, Dawn and New Horizons may get overshadowed by the new kid on the block. Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) stands poised to have their busiest year yet. Their manifest calls for somewhere between 12 and 18 launches in 2015. SpaceX only launched 3 rockets in 2013 and doubled that to 6 in 2014. With 3 launches already this year as of March 2nd, I am starting to believe they can double their launch rate again this year.

Of course, a bunch of rocket launches isn’t by definition more exciting than the first flyby of Pluto or Ceres. The reason NASA stands to get overshadowed is the story of SpaceX. SpaceX isn’t just another rocket company out for profit – they are a product of one billionaire’s crazy vision of the future. And 13 years after their founding, with thousands of employees and billion dollar government contracts, the company has somehow stayed focused on their longterm goals. Other startups with dreams of Mars have been called “scams”. Meanwhile, SpaceX has proven their technical expertise with the reliability of their Falcon 9 rocket and has become a major player in the industry, continuing to snap up government and private launch contracts. Sexy rockets, an eccentric billionaire, and dreams of Mars. Usually the news is full of negative stories – airplane crashes, war, corrupt politicians, police brutality, racial tensions – but SpaceX is exactly the kind of positive story people love. And SpaceX has manages to hook us in by being just transparent enough to make us take them seriously, but also keep us guessing. For instance, the SpaceX twitter feed was fairly silent through much of December as they tried to launched their fifth resupply flight to ISS. Then 6 days after this launch they posted this incredible Vine of their failure to land the first stage safely on their autonomous drone ship. I don’t know about you, but I’ve watched it about a thousand times.

Besides a record number of launches, here are a few of the things SpaceX is planning to do this year:

  • four missions to resupply the International Space Station
  • build a new hangar and launch tower for crew launches in Florida
  • build a new spaceport near South Padre Island in Texas
  • pad abort tests for new Dragon V2
  • land a rocket on an autonomous drone ship (minus the explosion)
  • the first demo launch of the new Falcon Heavy rocket

New Space has been on a slow crawl for years, full of promise but few results. With Virgin Galactic likely out of commission for at least many more months and no planned launches in the Google Lunar X Prize competition until 2016, SpaceX is seemingly alone in the New Space business – at least as far as going to space is concerned. All the buzz about mining asteroids, billionaire funded flybys of Mars, and crowd-sourced space missions seems to have faded into the background noise. A lot of people seem to have the attitude of “I’ll believe it when I see it,” myself included. But even the cynics and naysayers have to be impressed by SpaceX’s continued progress. If they can achieve most of their goals for this year while continuing to fly safely and reliably, it just might be the year of SpaceX.

The Year of ISS?

As if dwarf planets and SpaceX aren’t enough, I think there is a third possibility for the biggest story of 2015. In fact, it made front page news before 2015 even started. In case you missed it, here was the cover of Time for their “2015: the year ahead” issue.

Scott Kelly Time cover

What’s the big deal? Astronauts have been living and working on the ISS non-stop since November 2000. The following major world events have all happened with a continuous human presence in space (from Futuretimeline.net and Wikipedia): George Bush sworn in, terrorist attack on 9/11/01, iPod launched, iPhone launched, Space Shuttle Columbia lost, invasion of Iraq, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, three summer Olympic Games, four FIFA World Cup Finals, the Great Recession, Barack Obama sworn in, Burj Khalifa constructed, two new Popes, and all 7 Harry Potter films released.

Ok, maybe I got a little carried away. The point is, astronauts living and working on the ISS is nothing new. Even the story of the Kelly twins – a major focus of the Time issue – is not new. Scott Kelly already commanded the ISS once during Expedition 26 and Mark Kelly, husband of Gabby Giffords, commanded STS-134. But just like the two NASA probes visiting new worlds this year, Scott Kelly’s missions is new territory for NASA. His stay aboard the ISS of almost a year will beat the next longest flight by an American by over four months. America loves a hero figures and pioneers. So when Commander Kelly got a personal invitation to the State of the Union Address, he got the biggest ovation of the night.

Having a single human face to connect with the space program this year may bring more attention to NASA than we have seen in a while. Only half a decade ago, the ISS was thought of by a good segment of the space community as a “white elephant” that sucked up money and the public largely didn’t know it existed (or would be reminded and then promptly forget). Now the ISS is featured in major motion pictures like Gravity and video games like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. NASA public affairs has embraced social media and at least one member of every space station crew regularly tweets stunning views and thoughts from space. When school kids or the morning news shows get to interview the astronauts on ISS, no one ever asks “is the space station a waste of money?” Instead they ask, “what is it like?”

Scott Kelly won’t be the only famous face people will connect with the ISS this year. In September 2015 the next space tourist, Sarah Brightman, will launch to the ISS as part of a “ferry crew”. She will spend less than 2 weeks in space while crews and Soyuz capsules are shuffled on the ISS – Scott Kelly’s long stay will mess up the regular and predictable 4 month cycle of 3-person crews. Brightman will be the first tourist on the ISS since Guy Laliberte in 2009. While she is not exactly a household name, people love to talk about rich people and the expensive things they buy. What is more glamorous than paying your way into space? A human story is just what NASA needs to bring attention to the ISS, and NASA has two of those stories this year. If Mark Kelly is open to media interviews while he goes through the same experiments as his brother, it may even make an interesting recurring story in the media, if it gets picked up. It could be a big story – or maybe the ISS was only front page news for one week at the beginning of the year? We will have to wait and see!

Conclusion

Of course, there is a lot more that might happen this year. The XCOR Lynx spaceplane may take flight finally; Virgin Galactic may return to flight; Curiosity may continue to build a case for organics on Mars; the Philae lander may wake up as comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko approaches the sun. Going in to 2014, it was predictable that the Rosetta mission and Philae lander would be a big story. But nobody predicted that 2014 would be largely remembered for two major spaceflight accidents, nor that a lot of sweat would be spent on the impacts to the launch sector from deteriorating international relations in Eastern Europe.

Although the unexpected may happen, I’m kind of hoping for a predictable year with lots of success and increasing media and public attention. I want to learn some new and surprising things about Ceres and Pluto while also checking Twitter every day for some stunning Earth views posted by Commander Kelly. I want to see thousands of people flock to the Space Coast for an on time launch of a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket.

Space exploration of all kinds is a great positive endeavor for us to share as a society, especially as a seemingly improving economy opens up space in our culture to look outward. I think a good year in all sectors of spaceflight could lead to even more bipartisan support of manned and robotic exploration alike in the NASA budget, and we can start to see a way out of the woods towards a clear space policy. Or I could be wrong, and distractions like the upcoming 2016 US presidential election could keep us in limbo for a while longer. What I like about the future is that anything is possible. Either way, I get to find out what those bright spots on Ceres are in just 4 days. Are you excited too?

March 2, 2015 10:12 pm

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