Archive for the ‘Orion’ Category

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Down to Earth

NASA has announced the chosen landing site of the upcoming 2020 Mars rover: Jezero Crater.

The European Space Agency (ESA) delivered the service module that will be used by NASA’s Orion capsule for the EM-1 test mission.

NASA released this new promotional video:

In Orbit

Two orbital rocket launches since my last post:

  • November 19 – A Chinese Long March 2D rocket carrying a communications satellite as well as other payloads.
  • November 21 – An ESA Vega rocket launched an earth-observing satellite for Morocco.

Check out this amazing time lapse footage taken by astronauts aboard the ISS of a Soyuz rocket launch on November 16th.

NASA celebrated the 20th anniversary of the launch of the first ISS module in 1998.

Around the Solar System

NASA’s InSight Mars lander will land on the red planet tomorrow.

Check out this animation which translates the orbits of the 8 major planets in our solar system into musical notes:

2017 in Review

The year of 2017 will be remembered by most of my readers for reasons totally unrelated to spaceflight. It was a tumultuous year with political turmoil, social strife, acts of violence, and devastating natural disasters. Unfortunately, it is these negative stories that tend to embed themselves in our memories as we witness the arc of history unfold. Even when we zoom out to a wide angle view of decades or centuries, it is violence and conflict we remember. What were the biggest events of the 20th century? Wars, economic collapse, threats of annihilation, and social strife. I don’t have to remind you though, as a space fan, that most of the world shares at least one bright memory of the difficult last century: Apollo 11.

In a similar way, I’m hoping that through all the difficult times we face as a society in the 21st century, that spaceflight can be one of those bright spots that is a source of optimism and hope (although, surely not the only source). As Bill Nye is fond of saying “space brings out the best in us.” Spaceflight is an outlet for positive creative energy. Spaceflight applies technology in new ways, often leading to new inventions and sometimes entire industries. Spaceflight allows us to conduct important research that applies directly to the interests and concerns of everyone on Earth – from medical studies onboard the ISS to weather and climate satellites to space telescopes looking out for Near Earth Objects (NEOs).

Spaceflight is a bipartisan endeavor universally loved by young and old alike because it taps into something innate in us. Whether it’s the love of exploration and discovery or just the appeal of astronauts as wholesome hometown heroes, space has always been an easy sell to the public. Very few other uses of time and money are as generally noncontroversial (although we like to argue over specifics). There was a chance for space to get swallowed up in the political turmoil in Washington, DC this past year. Luckily, that didn’t happen. Instead, the space industry had another great year with very few setbacks.

Some readers may take issue with that statement and want to argue that it was not a great year for space. After all, NASA still has no confirmed administrator, XCOR went out of business, several programs slipped their launch dates (JWST, SLS, Orion), and Cassini ended its mission at Saturn (leaving us with a dearth of outer solar system probes). But if we look at those space programs or missions that are active and flying, we see lots of success in 2017 with few failures. The loss of Cassini should probably be spun as a positive story anyway – the planned retirement of a historic program of exploration – 13 years in Saturn orbit.

Other than the few things I listed above, the only other major setbacks of 2017 would be the five complete launch failures shown below (there were one or two other partial failures). Both Japan and New Zealand (Rocket Lab) lost rockets on their maiden launch. India, China, and Russia all lost one rocket each. The two remaining major space powers – ESA and USA – did not have any launch failures.

Country Vehicle Payload Maiden launch?
Japan SS-520 nanosat Yes
New Zealand Electron none Yes
China Long March 5 Comm sat No
India PSLV Nav sat No
Russia Soyuz Various No

2017 actually had the lowest launch success rate since 2011 and yet overall it felt like a very successful year (launch success was about 93% instead of the usual 95%). A few things contribute to this being a good year for rockets. First of course, is that 2 of the failures were test launches. If you remove them from the accounting, we are back at 95%. The second big reason is that none of the other failures led to an interruption in logistical support for the ISS. From 2014 to 2016, ISS operations lost four uncrewed logistical support rockets. After a string that bad, the last 13 months of successful flights (ten missions in all) feels positively blissful.

The third, and maybe most important reason this was a great year for rockets, was that SpaceX had no failures this year. In 2015 they lost an ISS resupply mission on ascent. In 2016 their year was cut short at 8 missions when a rocket blew up on pad 40 at Cape Canaveral. The backlog of customers was looming for a long 6 months while SpaceX worked on recovering from that latest failure. Then, last January they returned to flight with a launch for Iridium and haven’t let up since. Their accomplishments include: no launch failures, a record 18 launches, a record 15 first stage recoveries, and first reuse of a first stage. The other American providers, ULA and Orbital ATK, also had good years with 8 and 3 successful launches each with no failures.

As long as we get to space with chemically propelled rockets, everything hinges on how well our rockets are flying. We can’t really do a retrospective on the year without looking at these numbers. This has always been true, but what is particularly poignant from 2017 are those 18 launches from SpaceX. That’s fully 20% of all launches. Not only that, but they flew a lot of important missions. In 2017 alone they launched four times to the ISS and at least twice for the US military. In 2018 they plan to launch several times for NASA, including to the ISS as well as the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS). At this point, it’s pretty clear that when SpaceX has a good year, the space industry has a good year.

In addition to the 10 successful cargo launches to the ISS this year, there were also 4 flawless crew launches to keep the record of 17 straight years of crewed operations going. NASA stepped up to 4 full-time USOS crew (which includes Japanese, Canadian, and European flyers), enabling even more research. NASA is now in full utilization mode of the ISS. Hundreds of experiments are being conducted each year – from physical science to medicine to biology to botany to astronomy – and each SpaceX Dragon brings up more externally mounted autonomous payloads such as last year’s aerosol monitoring payload (SAGE III) and a neutron star telescope (NICER), among others. The ISS has become an important platform for efficiently deploying small satellites, with dozens launched from the Japanese robotic arm last year.

The ISS looks well positioned for the future, with a healthy manifest of crew and payloads coming up as well as the exciting prospect of even larger crews, once Boeing and SpaceX successfully demonstrate flight of their new crew transportation systems. In the meantime, important maintenance has been ongoing to ensure that ISS can operate well into the 2020s. Early in the year a Japanese cargo vehicle, an HTV, brought up a new set of lithium ion batteries, the first in a series of battery replacements over the next few years that will keep the solar power flowing. The batteries were replaced in a series of 3 spacewalks last January. Ultimately, ISS astronauts would complete 10 successful spacewalks last year with no major issues.

The year in ISS was underscored by Peggy Whitson’s amazing flight. At 57 years old, Whitson now holds the record for most days in space of any American astronaut in history (665) as well as an impressive 60 hours of EVA time that puts her number 3 all time behind Anatoly Solovyev and Michael Lopez-Alegria. Peggy’s 289 day mission was almost entirely unprecedented. Not only was Whitson praised as a “space ninja” by her crew mates for her work onboard the ISS, but even made a wide impression outside of NASA and received a Woman of the Year award from Glamour Magazine. The crews aboard the ISS continue to bring the wonder of spaceflight home to us through their social media engagement and excellent educational outreach events. If you aren’t checking this link for the latest pictures from space every morning, you are missing out on a little bit of daily wonder.

The ISS is of course not the only game in town. NASA has very active planetary science and astronomy programs, not to mention similar missions from ESA, JAXA, and other agencies. 2017 saw no new launches of solar system probes (that’s right, zero) but many active missions made progress and the only “failure” being the end of Cassini. Mars is incredibly active with 8 missions. Two NASA rovers, Opportunity and Curiosity, are providing a wealth of insights into the wet history of Mars. The most exciting discoveries from those robots are likely yet to come. Two asteroid sample return missions, OSIRIS-Rex from NASA and Hayabusa 2 from JAXA, remain in interplanetary cruise phase. New Horizons is on its way to visit a Kuiper Belt Object next year, Juno remains in orbit at Jupiter, and Dawn continues to explore the largest asteroid, Ceres.

Some of these missions we heard big news from this year, such as Cassini’s analysis of the ocean plumes from icy Enceladus. We also gained a new understanding of the winds and storms of Jupiter from Juno. Not to mention the absolutely stunning images we have been treated to from JunoCam.

But overall, space exploration, especially planetary exploration, is a long game. Spacecraft take years to reach their targets and then spend sometimes months or years (at least for orbiters and rovers) slowly collecting the data they need to learn something new from our mysterious solar system neighbors. So there were no splashy launches or touchdowns in 2017. Instead, the hard work from years past continued to pay off with well built spacecraft going about their daily business. 2017 was a great year in this respect. Years like this lay the foundation for big discoveries to come; it’s just that we have to wait a bit for the papers to be published. The only real downer this year is probably that Curiosity’s drill is still out of commission.

There is of course, a lot more to cover. Spaceflight is a big industry that goes far beyond just the ISS or big planetary exploration missions. New Space, for instance, had a lot of interesting updates this year. In addition to Rocket Lab making their first launch attempt, Blue Origin demonstrated further progress on their New Shepard vehicle as well as their BE-4 engine, Virgin Orbit moved a few steps closer to their first test launch with several engine tests, and Sierra Nevada conducted their first free glide flight in several years.

Then there’s astronomy. So much is happening in astronomy these days that it deserves a lengthy retrospective all its own. Here are some highlights of last year in a quick paragraph. Many interesting exoplanets were discovered, such as the fascinating Trappist-1 system with three potentially habitable planets. But Ross 128b is my favorite potentially habitable planet, because it is less than 11 light years from Earth. Let’s go! Other exciting developments in astronomy included more neutron star collisions discovered via gravitational waves and also the fascinating cigar shaped something known as ‘Omuamua which flew through our solar system from somewhere this past October (more to come on this we hope).

As we look to the future, we can see that there is a lot to learn. The ISS has years of science to conduct – managers are furiously looking for more ways to maximize timelines and target the most likely breakthroughs. Meanwhile there are dozens of worlds here at home in our solar system yet to explore, not just with probes already launched but many to come (launches to Mars, Mercury, and the Moon in 2018). And most intriguing of all, there are thousands upon thousands of worlds to explore out there, beyond our own star.

The more we look, the more we find. And the more we find, the more questions we think to ask. This is the optimistic and worldview expanding impact of science. We are losing the explorers of the last century – Apollo legends Gene Cernan, Dick Gordon, and John Young all passed away in their 80s in the past year. But it’s hard not to see the vast opportunity available to the current generation of explorers in this century. Perhaps some day we will look back at this time period as a changing of the guard. It is hard to say without the benefit of hindsight. If nothing else, for those of us that are inspired by scientific discovery and exploration, 2017 showed us that spaceflight can be – and probably always will be – a candle in the dark.

 Previous year in review posts

2015 year in review: Part I and Part II.

2014 year in review: Part I and Part II.

2013 year in review: Part I and Part II.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Former astronaut Bruce McCandless II died at 80 years old. McCandless was selected as an astronaut in 1966 but didn’t fly until 1984 on STS-41-B. McCandless is probably best known as the first astronaut to do an untethered EVA using the MMU on that first flight. He flew again on STS-31 in 1990.

SpaceX released photos of the first Falcon Heavy rocket being readied for flight, as well as its payload.

The Falcon Heavy rocket was temporarily vertical on the launch pad for fit checks ahead of its January launch.

NASA completed a parachute drop test of the Orion spacecraft in Arizona. The test used only 2 of the 3 parachutes, to validate a parachute failure case.

NASA conducted a water suppression system test at launch pad 39B at KSC in preparation for SLS flights. Check out the video below:

NASA has selected two finalists for a new robotic planetary mission. The mission will either be a comet sample return or a Titan quadcopter.

The new American Girl doll will be an aspiring astronaut, with space suit and all.

In Orbit

There were five orbital rocket launches since my last post, two weeks ago:

  • Dec 23 – SpaceX launched a Falcon 9 rocket from Vandenberg in California, carrying communications satellites for Iridium.
  • Dec 23 – JAXA launched an H-IIA rocket carrying two scientific satellites.
  • Dec 23 – The Chinese space agency launched a Long March 2D rocket carrying an Earth-observing payload.
  • Dec 25 – The Chinese space agency launched a Long March 2C rocket carrying payloads for the Chinese military.
  • Dec 26 – Roscosmos launched a Zenit rocket carrying a communications satellite for Angola.

The Anogosat-1 payload initially had a problem and lost comm with ground control. However, reports in the past day or two indicate that communications have been restored.

The SpaceX launch was their 18th and last of the year – in 2016 they launched only 6 rockets. The launch was just after sunset and created spectacular views from the LA metro area. The video below from a drone is one of the best examples:

Meanwhile, the Soyuz rocket that launched on December 17th arrived at ISS successfully on Wednesday. The ISS crew has now returned to a full complement of 6. One of their Christmas treats was an onboard screening of Star Wars: The Last Jedi.

Also aboard the space station, the Progress 67P freighter undocked from the ISS this week and re-entered the earth’s atmosphere, carrying trash. The freighter will be replaced by 69P in February.

Here are some more pictures from the astronauts aboard the ISS the enjoy on your holiday weekend (as always, follow them on Twitter here).

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Orbital ATK performed a qualification test firing of the abort motor for the Orion spacecraft.

A recent study at the University of Nevada – Las Vegas (UNLV) found that the cancer risk for a journey to Mars may be higher than previously thought. Spaceflight Insider published a response opinion piece by Robert Zubrin (author of The Case for Mars).

Jeffrey Kluger (science editor at time and coauthor with Jim Lovell of Apollo 13) has published a new book Apollo 8 about humanity’s first mission to orbit the moon. I am currently listening to the book on Audible and will publish a review next week.

A private company based in Europe called Bake In Space has announced plans to fly an experimental zero-gravity oven and dough recipe to the space station.

In Orbit

There have been two orbital rocket launches in the last week:

The Progress freighter arrived at ISS this past Friday and docked successfully, delivering supplies from station propellant to food, water, and science experiments.

Tragically, an employee of the Russian space program died after he was deployed to the cleanup zone after the Soyuz launch and a fire engulfed his truck.

The Chinese space agency has tested robotic refueling with their uncrewed Tianzhou freighter at the Tiangong-2 space station.

Ever since the SpaceX Dragon capsule docked to the ISS last week, robotics engineers have been busy at work unloading new science experiments, including the NICER neutron star observatory and the Roll Out Solar Array (ROSA).

Out There

Astronomers continue to search for habitable, Earth-like planets around other stars. However, other oddball planets also continue to pop up, like KELT-9b, which is the hottest planet ever discovered.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

NASA has finalized an agreement with Boeing to use the extra seats on two Soyuz flights to the ISS over the next year and a half for additional US astronauts. There is some contractual stuff going on here, but basically NASA is going to use seats that Roscosmos was going to leave empty to save money.

Virgin Galactic has spun off its LauncherOne program into a new company called Virgin Orbit.

Jeff Bezos’ company Blue Origin is now getting in on the new moon missions also. According to the Washington Post (owned by Bezos), Blue Origin has floated a proposal to the new US presidential administration that they want to help support NASA missions to the moon with their Blue Moon concept.

PBS News Hour did a brief segment on all of this new interest in lunar missions:

In Orbit

Two rocket launches since my last post:

It’s hard to keep up with the current ISS crew, the members of Expedition 50, as they tweet like its all they do in what little spare time they have. Here’s a selection of the best pictures from just the last week.

 

Around the Solar System

NASA’s MAVEN probe in orbit of Mars executed an avoidance maneuver of about 0.4 m/s to avoid colliding with the moon Phobos. That velocity change is small, about on the order of the debris avoidance maneuvers we do with the ISS.

Check out these dust devils spotted by Curiosity rover on Mars.

Did you know that Saturn’s moon Enceladus is half cratered and half smooth? Check out this recent image from NASA’s Cassini probe to see for yourself.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Funeral services were held for Gemini and Apollo astronaut Eugene Cernan in Houston on January 24th.

The Russian workhorse heavy-lift rocket, the Proton, is currently grounded due to a new hardware recall. The rocket may be grounded through the spring, delaying a backlog of commercial flights.

The new US presidential administration and Congress are starting to have an impact on NASA’s plans. A few notable things happened in the beltway over the past few months.

  1. Acting NASA administrator Robert Lightfoot is looking into whether the first SLS flight could be crewed by astronauts rather than unmanned. This would potentially move up the timeline for NASA’s exploration plans by several years.
  2. An authorization bill in Congress could direct NASA back to having Orion capable of supporting ISS crew flights as a backup to the Commercial Crew plan.
  3. The Sierra Nevada Corporation is proposing that their Dreamchaser spacecraft could be used for a sixth Hubble servicing mission.

Severe weather in Louisiana on February 7th included a tornado which struck NASA’s Michoud facility near New Orleans. NASA facilities sustained damage but all employees are safe with no major injuries.

In Orbit

There have been five successful orbital rocket launches since my last update on January 23rd:

  1. On January 24th, Japan launched a military communications satellite on an H-IIA rocket.
  2. On January 28th, Arianespace launched a spanish communications satellite from French Guiana on a Soyuz rocket.
  3. On February 14th, Arianespace launch telecommunications satellites for Indonesia and Brasil from French Guiana on an Ariane 5 rocket.
  4. On February 15th, India launched a wide array of small satellites (104 in all) on their PSLV rocket.
  5. On February 19th, SpaceX launched an uncrewed Dragon spacecraft to the ISS on a Falcon 9 rocket from Florida.

And of course, here’s the awesome video of the Falcon 9’s first stage booster returning to Landing Zone 1 at CCAFS.

Up on the ISS, two cargo spacecraft departed. First, the Japanese HTV left ISS in late January. It stayed in orbit for another week with plans to conduct a tether experiment. However, the tether failed to deploy. HTV was followed quickly by the departure of Progress MS-03 from a nadir facing port of the space station.

Around the Solar System

NASA has decided to leave the Juno probe in it’s longer 56-day orbit around Jupiter instead of the planned closer 14-day orbit. This decision is based on anomalies seen with the probe’s main engine and worries that another burn will not go per plan.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

It was space capsule drop test week, with an Orion drop test in water and a Boeing Starliner drop test on land, both at NASA Langley.

Here is video of the Starliner crew access arm being installed earlier this month:

SpaceX recently erected their first flown and recovered Falcon 9 rocket first stage’s as a display piece at their factory in California.

Veteran NASA astronaut Terry Virts has retired from NASA. Virts flew on one space shuttle mission (STS-130) and one ISS expedition (42/43) for a total of 213 days in space including 3 EVAs.

In Orbit

On August 19th, ISS astronauts Jeff Williams and Kate Rubins exited the ISS airlock for a 6-hour EVA to attach the new International Docking Adapter (IDA) to the front of the station (along with a few other tasks). The spacewalk went well so Williams and Rubins will conduct their second as planned on September 1st. Below are two videos, a 3-minute summary of the August 19th EVA and then a long press conference discussing the upcoming EVA. Jump to 8 minutes into the press conference for a narrated overview of the EVA.

Jeff Williams recently broke the American record for total time in space, besting Scott Kelly’s 520 days. Williams has launched to space four separate times. Kelly visiting mission control last week to congratulate Williams:

There were three more successful rocket launches since my last post on August 15th. First was a Chinese rocket with a main payload of an experimental quantum navigation satellite. Second was a Delta IV rocket carrying payloads for the U.S. Air Force. Last was a European Ariane 5 rocket with two telecommunication satellites.

Around the Solar System

NASA recently recovered contact with the STEREO-B satellite, which is one of a pair of Sun-observing probes that was lost a couple of years ago.

NASA’s Jupiter orbiter, Juno, completed close approach during its first orbit. This will be Juno’s closest approach to Jupiter during the nominal mission. We should get some great shots from the onboard JunoCam soon!

You should check out the work of Sean Duran, who is inserting accurately scaled astronauts into Mars rover Curiosity’s pictures to help us get a better feel for what Mars would really look like.

Out There

In what may very well be the biggest science story of the year, The European Southern Observatory (ESO) in Chile announced their findings that a small terrestrial world orbits in the habitable zone of Proxima Centauri, a red dwarf star which orbits Alpha Centauri at a distance of 0.1 light years, and is the closest star to Earth at about 4.2 light years away.

Weekly Links

Down to Earth

Ron Howard is working on a TV a miniseries based on Elon Musk and his plans to colonize Mars.

Bulgaria has joined ESA as a “cooperating state”.

Orbital ATK has been contracted by Lockheed Martin to provide the launch abort motor for Orion.

Blue Origin will reportedly resume test flights of their New Shepard rocket later this year.

Check out these very creative animations of NASA’s Apollo mission patches (via CollectSpace).

The members of the Made in Space ISS 3-D printer team received their shipment recently. In fact, you can watch them unboxing it on YouTube (via Parabolic Arc):

In Orbit

SpaceX will launch their next ISS resupply mission today, April 13, and will also be giving the barge landing another shot. The static fire test happened on Saturday, which is an important milestone before launch. I suspect they won’t stream imagery of the barge landing live (like last time) but hopefully they will have dramatic imagery of a success or failure to share afterwards! Among other cargo, food, and science that this CRS-6 mission is hauling to the ISS, there is also a cubesat known as Arkyd-3, which is a demonstration mission for the asteroid mining company Planetary Resources.

The forecast for the launch window is only 60% as of last night. There is another launch window on Tuesday. Here is Spaceflight Now’s live stream with “mission status center”.

And of course I need to share a few recent tweets and pictures from the ISS:

Around the Solar System

Curiosity has been very busy in Gusev Crater on Mars ever since the team resolved the issue with the instruments on the robotic arm earlier this year. They recently did a few good drives and got some great images. You can see them and follow along with the mission at The Martian Chronicles blog. I love this picture. Curiosity should be reaching the 10 kilometer mark soon.

NASA’s MAVEN spacecraft has completed 1,000 orbits of Mars.

Mission planners for ESA’s Rosetta are rethinking their future close flybys of the comet 67P due to the navigation hazard caused by dust. A flyby in March sent the spacecraft into safe mode.

And don’t forget Cassini, still orbiting Saturn taking amazing pictures and doing science!

2014 in review – Part I

You can read last year’s 2013 in review posts for context here: Part I and Part II.

Part I – NASA

When trying to summarize a year for any topic, be it world events, politics, or some niche area, like spaceflight, it is tempting to try to pick out one or two big events that were the highlight of the year. I expect the people at NASA headquarters will want to focus especially on the successful first mission of the new Orion capsule. That unmanned mission, called EFT-1, went off without a hitch in early December and was promoted by NASA as a “first step” on our new journey to Mars. Certainly, the Orion (and the SLS rocket to fly it) is a significant enough portion of NASA’s budget ($3.1 out of $17.6 billion for FY 2014) to make some noise about. But it is obviously not the only thing the agency is doing.

NASA lives in a tough public relations environment in which its greatest area of success and stability – robotic planetary exploration – doesn’t receive the same level of attention as its manned exploration programs, which are more often in flux. In 2013, NASA launched a very expensive new Mars orbiter, MAVEN, which entered Mars orbit right on schedule. MAVEN is an interesting science mission, but it is hard to explain to the public in an easy sound bite why the “Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN” mission is exciting. MAVEN also serves a very important secondary role of being a replacement relay satellite for the active Mars rovers Curiosity and Opportunity. In fact, the solar system is full of continuing stories of NASA’s success in planetary exploration – sometimes referred to as NASA’s “crown jewel”: three Mars orbiters, two rovers on Mars, New Horizons on the way to Pluto, Cassini at Saturn, Dawn on the way to Vesta, Juno on the way to Jupiter, and I’ve certainly left something out.

The problem with ongoing planetary missions is that they move slowly. They don’t have the sex appeal that news channels can include on the morning edition. It seems to me that there are only a few distinct things that get a space story coverage on the national news, and none of them are “Mars rover continues to rove”. The hooks as I see them are: rocket launch, astronauts, political relevance, failure, or the specter of failure (like a daring Mars landing). So which planetary missions had a hook this year? Well, none, really. No major missions launched, no major missions failed in a newsworthy way, and no NASA missions had a daring EDL (Entry, Descent, and Landing) sequence to capture the public’s attention. The European Space Agency’s landing on comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko got widespread media coverage specifically because of that hook about the specter of failure. Google even featured Philae in at least one of their “doodles” and in a national TV ad run on New Year’s Eve.

The story of the year was clearly ESA’s Rosetta/Philae mission. Robotic planetary exploration, NASA’s crown jewel, did not shine in 2014, and was in fact overshadowed by the plucky yet doomed Philae lander. So, although NASA had a lucky 13 planetary missions in operation during 2014, the biggest success of the year for the agency really did come late in the year with the EFT-1 flight of Orion. Thus, you would expect that NASA’s own PR would focus on this hugely expensive and visible part of their plans. But looking at their own year-end summaries, like the “This Year At NASA” video, Orion, SLS, and the future of manned spaceflight are not given the importance we would expect.

In fact, the video opens by mentioning “…the next giant leap in space exploration: sending astronauts to Mars” but only mentions development of certain “game-changing technologies” in that context, and briefly mentions that NASA’s plans “…could include a human mission in the 2020s to an asteroid…” SLS and Orion are mentioned in a different part of the video. Here in this short 6-minute 2014 summary video, we can see why coverage of the EFT-1 mission was by-and-large fleeting. NASA PR material does not make it clear what the long-term plan is. Astronauts could visit an asteroid? Why don’t we know where we are going yet? These are reasonable questions for the public to be asking. Americans probably wouldn’t mind if the first mission to Mars is 15 to 20 years away if you tell them specifically what needs to be done to reach that goal. Imagine a series of milestones like we had for Apollo – the Gemini program missions and then the early Apollo missions each had a purpose, a technology or technique to test out, that had to be done before a landing could be attempted. 2014 was a year of opportunity for NASA to lay out that plan for people as EFT-1 approached. Instead, we get two rather vague graphics (one released in April, and the other in December), which do not do much to outline specific milestones.

“Path to Mars” from April 2014 by NASA

“Journey to Mars” from December 2014 by NASA

With vagueness, very long timelines, and no second Orion mission for 3 years, it is understandable that the public did not latch on to the EFT-1 story in 2014. Before we blame “kids these days”, the state of education, or America’s preoccupation with reality TV and celebrities, I think in some ways 2014 also proved that people do in fact care about space exploration.

Perhaps I need to convince you. Go watch that Google TV spot again. It ends with a rather long sequence highlighting the success of Philae, voiced over by Bill Nye. The movie Interstellar was a financial success this year, hot on the heels of 2013’s Gravity. Most tellingly, in my opinion, is how the public responds to real stories and images of spaceflight from the astronauts onboard the ISS.

The ISS was home to many prolific tweeters in 2014, including Mike Hopkins, Richard Mastracchio, Koichi Wakata, Reid Wiseman, Alex Gerst, Terry Virts, and Samantha Cristoforetti (Virts and Cristoforetti are in space at the time of this writing). Commander Steve Swanson didn’t tweet, but posted lots of pictures on the ISS Instagram feed – more recent crews have kept up the postings there. And then during Expedition 40, the ISS crew joined Vine, with accounts from Reid Wiseman, Terry Virts, and “InsideISS” popping up. Most posts from astronauts average several hundred retweets, favorites, or comments per post, but often they reach several thousand. A tweet of a few shots of a moonset from ISS on Virts’ twitter feed from December 22nd has been retweeted 3,571 times.

The average person loves space exploration and the idea of living in space. What people don’t love is talking about space policy. The average person doesn’t want to know the political or technical nuances of this or that NASA budget or plan. I know this from personal experience talking about my job. What people want to know is where we are going, that we have a solid plan to get there, and that there’s a chance that their kid who wants to be an astronaut could be involved in those awesome plans. Americans expect NASA and its employees to be brilliant, driven, motivated, and no nonsense – the qualities of all of the characters in the movie Apollo 13. The “failure is not an option” mythos translates directly to an expectation that NASA knows what it’s doing and where it’s going. When NASA’s own PR says things like we could be going to an asteroid in a few years, not that we will, most people would understandably be thinking that they’ll check back in when NASA has its plans figured out.

I don’t know what the most common answer would be if you asked people on the street what important things happened for NASA in 2014, but I have some guesses. A lot of people may think that Rosetta/Philae was a NASA mission and mention that. Others will remember the “NASA rocket” that blew up, by which they would be referring to the Orbital Sciences’ Antares rocket that failed shortly after launch (technically not a NASA failure, but it’s unfair to expect the layman to understand the difference). What would not likely be on the list is the official PR line about EFT-1: that NASA launched the first in a series of missions to take the human race to Mars. The general feeling towards NASA at the end of 2014 is likely more along the lines of “has plans to do some awesome stuff in 10 or 20 years that I’ll get excited about then.”

What answers would you get if you asked the same question of congress people and staffers on Capitol Hill? They are well aware of the SLS/Orion program because of its large cost – in the Fiscal Year 2015 budget that was approved in December, a big part of the $500 million increase over last year’s budget went to that project. A total of about $2 billion will be spent on SLS/Orion in 2015. Unfortunately, the willingness to increase NASA’s budget likely has more factors than a commitment to a long-term Path to Mars. More immediate issues, like the ripple effects of growing geopolitical tensions between the US and Russia, were likely on politicians minds when they approved the Cromnibus spending bill last month. The Crimea crisis in February set the tone for most discussion about NASA inside the Beltway during 2014: NASA can’t launch its own astronauts to space. Most of all, 2014 was a reminder of that fact. The good news is that with the award of the CCtCAP contract to Boeing and SpaceX and the launch of EFT-1, 2014 had a lot of bright points; it showed concrete evidence that NASA is working on closing the gap.

So how will 2014 be remembered? With an increased budget, an almost flawless Orion test flight, and lots of “rovers continuing to rove”, NASA has reasons to be optimistic going into 2015. However, 2014 was the middle year in the gap that hopefully will end in 2017 with a crewed test flight of an American spacecraft. The explosion of an ISS resupply rocket in October combined with mostly vague plans for future human spaceflight has left the public unconvinced that NASA is where their love of space should be focused right now. NASA faces a real chance of being further marginalized and replaced in the public’s psyche by “New Space”, but it all depends on what certain key players, such as SpaceX and Bigelow can achieve in the coming year.

In part 2 of my year in review, I will recap how the US sanctions on Russia related to Ukraine affected various aspects of the US space sector, a perfect opportunity for Elon Musk to steal the public’s focus away from NASA.

2014 Link Dump

The past year was one of ups and downs in the space sector. The year started with a lot of successes that are lost in the shadows of the bigger stories late in the year, including successful launches for Orbital Sciences and SpaceX, China’s Yutu rover on the moon, NASA’s LADEE ending a successful mission, and the debut of new live streaming HD camera views from the ISS, among other stories.

The space sector’s focus quickly shifted when Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in February, which kicked off a ripple effect involving the Russian RD-180 engines, used to launch American Department of Defense assets. The question of whether the US launch sector is too reliant on Russian rocket engines is still playing a huge role in space policy almost a year later. I would go so far as to say the RD-180 story was the start of a year dominated by a focus on launch vehicles, rather than actual ongoing missions.

That dominance came to a head at the end of 2014 with the loss of an Orbital Sciences’ Antares rocket and the Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo, just days apart. In fact, all 2014 summaries seem to be dominated by the last 10 weeks of the year. There were several triumphs late in the year, such as ESA’s Rosetta/Philae mission and NASA’s EFT-1 demonstration. However, the vehicle losses were bigger stories (as negative stories often are) and likely have bigger implications for the future. The contrast of the positive and negative events towards the end of the year are a microcosm of how the year feels to me: great ambitions underscored by sobering reality.

I have a series of posts planned to sum up the year in space with a bit of commentary. In particular, it is interesting to put 2014 into context by following the themes that I used when summing up 2013 – they seem to have continued about the same for the last 12 months; the mood continues to be one of cautious anticipation. I’m sure you are waiting for my commentary with bated breath (yeah, right). While you wait, enjoy some high level summaries and top lists from around the internet.

Happy New Year!

Wikipedia Stats

The “2014 in Spaceflight” article is fairly comprehensive at capturing all of the launches of the year. 2014 saw 92 launches (with one from China earlier today), outdoing the last few years by at least several launches. 2014 is the only year I am aware of to hit the 90s as far as number of launches. Update: According to Spaceflight Now, the last time more than 90 launches occurred in a year was in 1992, with 93.

On the ISS, several cosmonauts on the list of most total time in space added to their totals this year, such as Tyurin at 13 and Kotov at 14. Japan’s Koichi Wakata commanded Expedition 39 to solidify his spot as one of the few non-Russian or Americans on the list at 35. Richard Mastracchio snuck into the last spot at number 50 on the Wikipedia list during Expedition 39 (but he is going to get bumped next year by Scott Kelly and possibly others).

Speaking of Mastracchio, he did 3 spacewalks while on ISS at the end of 2013 and early 2014. The EVAs totaled 14 hours, bringing his lifetime total above 53 hours and bringing him way up to number 5 on the list of most total EVA time. There were 7 total spacewalks on ISS in 2014. However, none of the other spacewalkers from this year made the Wikipedia list of top 30 for time.

Top Space Stories of 2014

The following outlets have a rundown of the biggest things that happened this year. Usually with a paragraph or two of detail on each topic.

Universe Today

AmericaSpace

Spaceflight Now

Space.com

Scientific American

Here are some video summaries from the eyes of the space agencies themselves. First, NASA’s “this year @NASA” video.

The European Space Agency also produced a short summary video.

Update: and here is SpaceX’s own summary of their year.

Other Top Lists

Universe Today’s top space photos of 2014.

Space.com’s top astronomy stories of 2014.

While not space-related, The Big Picture’s year in pictures photo essay is a must read. Here are parts one, two, and three.

EarthSky has the top 10 new species of 2014.

Jeff Master’s at the Wunderground has the top 10 weather stories and top 10 weather videos of 2014.

Top 25 images of Earth from space (all DigitalGlobe).

Scientific American’s top science stories of 2014.

Update: Top space images of the year from Reuters.