Here is NASA’s 8-minute take on what they did in 2015, which may provide some helpful context to my commentary below.
Part I – NASA
Perhaps I am biased, but if you really want to know what happened in spaceflight in a given year, you have to first start with the government side of things. If you are like me, you are way more interested in exploration, so NASA is where its at. Other people with a keen interest in rockets, satellites, cubesats, and communications technology may disagree. But in the area of exploration, NASA is king.
Maybe some day years from now, SpaceX or a company like it will be so successful that they no longer rely on government contracts to stay afloat. When that day comes, it is very possible that NASA could be overshadowed in the minds of the public – no longer being synonymous with spaceflight. This actually kind of happened in 2014, which was not a standout year for NASA while excitement for SpaceX was building and the loss of an Orbital Antares rocket and the Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo made the news. However, as we will see, the banner year that 2015 was and the loss of a SpaceX rocket in June reversed the trend. For now, NASA rules the headlines. Later when we look ahead to 2016 I will speculate on whether the pendulum will again swing back towards “New Space”.
As I alluded to above, 2014 was not a standout year for NASA (see my 2014 in review posts for a recap). The two big space stories were Rosetta/Philae comet rendezvous (which is an ESA mission) and the Orion launch late in the year. While space fans were certainly thrilled about Rosetta, overall NASA’s achievements were somewhat forgettable to the general public. Fortunately for those of us who want the public to be thinking about space all the time, 2015 was not at all like 2014. The only way you could stir more excitement would be with a major crisis or failure (not desirable!) or with astronauts launching on American rockets. Given that we are still a couple years from the end of the astronaut gap, 2015 was about as good as you could get for NASA.
Let’s just list out briefly the big things for NASA in 2015: New Horizons flyby of Pluto, Dawn reaches orbit of asteroid Ceres, Scott Kelly starts one year mission on ISS, MRO discovers flowing water on Mars, Europa mission greenlit, and NASA budget for 2016 gets a boost. Not to mention the movie The Martian was a huge success and was basically a love letter to NASA (and very good almost-free PR). The standout is obviously Pluto for space story of the year. The loss of a SpaceX rocket in June and the dramatic return to flight in December will probably be argued by some for story of the year, but Google Trends seems to show that it is no contest.
This is a screenshot from a Google Trends query on five NASA related search terms and their worldwide frequency throughout 2015. I think there are a few interesting features to point out. First, SpaceX’s baseline interest is really low, some notable spikes surrounding their launches, but nothing compared to the interest NASA’s missions stir up. Also of note, the baseline interest in Mars is very high, probably due to Mars just being a common feature in all aspects of culture. Mars has periodic peaks for various reasons – NASA missions, astronomical conjunctions, and movies. Mars interest this year was about average with the exception of the water on Mars story in October (which is probably mixed in with people searching Mars due to the film The Martian). The peak early in the year appears to correspond to an astronomical conjunction in the skies, and not any NASA-related news. The last major feature is the huge spike in interest in Pluto in July during the New Horizons rendezvous. It sets the baseline interest for my search and no other topic even comes close. This for me is what seals the deal on Pluto as the story of the year.
So why is Pluto a big deal? The New Horizons mission closed the opening chapter on humanity’s exploration of the solar system as the last probe to complete initial reconnaissance of a major body. Before New Horizons approached Pluto this year, the dwarf planet was basically just a blob in some Hubble images. And boy, did we make discoveries! Pluto is an incredible diverse world with apparently active geology and a measurable atmosphere. Incredible.
Meanwhile over at the largest main belt asteroid, Ceres, Dawn was doing some initial reconnaissance also after reaching orbit in March. This was another fuzzy blog brought into focus. The news about the “bright spots” made the news big time. Although the speculation about “alien cities” was worth an eye roll at best, the fact that people are interested in such a pure scientific endeavor is the important part of the story to me.
This is that elusive spirit of exploration that the public loves about spaceflight. They eat this stuff up. Cassini, NASA’s probe at Saturn, continues to return simply amazing images of that planet and its moons and continues to make discoveries. However, we already know what Saturn looks like. Meanwhile, missions like Rosetta, New Horizons, and Dawn make headlines because we are seeing a new world for the first time. This is what makes planetary exploration NASA’s “crown jewel”. Going into 2016, there is less clear opportunity for standout planetary science. The number of active solar system probes is changing – MESSENGER crashed into Mercury last year (on purpose) and Cassini will be ending its mission in 2017. However, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx asteroid sample return should launch this year and Juno should arrive at Jupiter. With the boost to the planetary sciences budget of NASA, which went up from $1.4 billion to $1.6 billion in the December omnibus bill, things are looking good.
Besides robotic planetary exploration, NASA had a busy year with its human exploration programs. For a spaceship just going in circles around the Earth, ISS had a pretty exciting year. Scott Kelly’s mission has been going well after he launched in March and some unexpected failures, both from ISS onboard systems and the loss of resupply rockets, kept NASA on their toes and in the news. Unfortunately, Sarah Brightman pulled out of her ISS tourist flight for the fall, so NASA missed that opportunity for front page news last year.
The loss of 3 out of 10 ISS resupply flights in the 12 month period from October 2014 to October 2015 was unprecedented. But NASA and its partners proved the quality of their partnership by recovering with no major setbacks, other than extending the Expedition 43 mission, which allowed Samantha Cristoforetti to break the record for longest spaceflight for a woman. As I pointed out in this post back in the summer, the multi-rocket redundancy of the ISS supply chain is what kept the ISS flying this year and should serve as a solid counterpoint to the simple-minded idea that the US or Russia could simply pull out of the program as a political move. I hope that after 2015, that discussion has been put to bed.
To really understand what 2015 meant for NASA, I think we need to swing our focus back to planetary exploration before we wrap up this retrospective. I talked a lot about Ceres and Pluto above, but there was a lot of other stuff going on, including the water on Mars story, the confirmation of a global subsurface ocean at Enceladus, and the announcement of a new Europa mission. I wrote a post back in March 2015 trying to predict what the space story will be for 2015. My three options were basically ISS, Pluto, or SpaceX. Both ISS and SpaceX didn’t pan out due to the unforeseen. By contrast, it should be no surprise that NASA’s planetary missions delivered the goods.
While Congress and the general public continue to be fixated on rockets, SpaceX, and when the next American astronaut will launch from Florida, robotic missions continue to fly under the radar and keep the general publics interest in space alive. 2015 showed more than ever the importance of these missions and why a healthy balance is needed between human and robotic exploration both for political and practical reasons. Robotic missions keep up our excitement during gap years and will reliably continue even if the next presidential administration cancels the SLS and Orion programs. The good news is that it appears this was recognized by Congress in the 2016 budget increase. For me, planetary science is the canary in the coal mine of the story of NASA and 2015 gives me reason to be optimistic about the years ahead.
Postscript: Thanks as always to my wife Leah for her excellent proofreading of this post!