It’s shaping up to be a stellar year for spaceflight

Elon Musk is prone to tweeting artistic renderings of the rockets and spacecraft he intends to build, offering his followers a glimpse of the future he envisions for humanity on other planets. So when he recently posted a photo of a launch pad leading to his rocket and spacecraft, Musk felt compelled to clarify in a follow-up tweet.

“Sorry, to be clear, this photo is real,” he wrote. “Nothing returned.”

Although the prospect of human spaceflight returning from American soil has sometimes seemed like a mirage, NASA astronauts could return to space this year from Florida’s Space Coast for the first time since the Space Shuttle. was removed more than seven years ago. If successful, it would punctuate a year that government and industry officials say could mark a turning point in the US space program, which could see all sorts of new milestones as NASA celebrates the 50th anniversary of the spacecraft. ‘landing.

Boeing is also working on developing a spacecraft that it hopes will ferry NASA astronauts to the International Space Station by the end of 2019, meaning there won’t be one but two American spacecraft capable of flying astronauts into orbit. After successfully scraping what many consider the edge of space last month, Virgin Galactic plans to make space tourism a reality in 2019. Blue Origin also hopes to fly its first test mission to space this year. . And smaller rocket companies hope to start launching into orbit more regularly.

NASA is pushing for a return to the Moon, and the White House has again made space a national priority, reconstituting the National Space Council, led by Vice President Mike Pence.

“We’ve been working for years to get back to the Moon and to Mars, creating a diverse suborbital and low-Earth orbit economy, and looking for the political, technical, and monetary will to make that a reality,” said Jared Stout, the former Deputy Executive Secretary of the Space Council who is now a policy adviser at Venable, a law firm. “In 2019, we are poised to fulfill the dreams of decades of planning and energy invested in the space enterprise.”

When it comes to space, there are always setbacks and delays. Descending from the surface of the Earth is difficult and dangerous. It requires huge amounts of energy and nothing ever seems to go to plan.

Virgin Galactic had a fatal accident in 2014. And Musk recently tweeted that the first uncrewed flight of the spacecraft designed to carry humans “will be extremely intense”.

“The first flights are particularly dangerous, because there is a lot of new material.”

Those caveats aside, here’s a preview of what to expect in 2019.

– Commercial Crew: In 2014, when NASA awarded contracts to Boeing and SpaceX to fly its astronauts to the space station, then-NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said it would set “the ground for what promises to be the most ambitious and exciting chapter in history.” of NASA and manned spaceflight.”

He promised the first flights would take place by 2017, ending NASA’s reliance on Russia to send its astronauts into space.

The program suffered setbacks, including a lack of congressional funding. Now, Boeing and SpaceX are expected to conduct test flights with humans this year, although many believe the program will continue to be delayed, potentially pushing at least one of the human flights until next year.

SpaceX was scheduled to fly a test mission without humans on board this month, but NASA recently announced that would be delayed until February.

In the meantime, NASA is conducting a corporate security review, spurred by Musk smoking marijuana on a podcast.

– SpaceX: After having had a memorable 2018, during which it flew a record 21 times, the company hopes to continue its pace this year. SpaceX has a full manifesto of commercial satellites to launch, in addition to the national security payloads it’s lifting for the Pentagon and the cargo it’s ferrying to the space station for NASA.

It plans two more flights of the Falcon Heavy rocket, the most powerful in service today. Last year it flew for the first time, delivering a Tesla Roadster on a trip to Mars.

After mastering the art of salvaging rocket first stages, which were traditionally dumped in the ocean, SpaceX is working to catch up with another part of its rockets: the nose or fairing. In 2017, Musk said they cost around $6 million (around Rs 42 crore) each.

“At some point we’re like debating, ‘Do we try to get it back or not?’ “, he said at a press conference. “It’s like, ‘Guys, imagine you had $6 million in cash in a pallet flying through the air, and it’s going to crash into the ocean. Do you want to try and get that back?’ Yes Yes, you would.

The company uses a boat with a giant net attached to it, forming a giant catcher’s glove. In a recent test, it got pretty close.

– Space tourism: Last month, Virgin Galactic achieved a long-elusive goal when two pilots flew its space plane more than 50 miles high, barely passing what many consider the edge of space. The pilots, CJ Sturckow, a former NASA astronaut who flew on the Space Shuttle four times, and Mark “Forger” Stucky, a former Air Force test pilot who flew the SR-71 Blackbird, are expected to receive astronaut wings at a ceremony in Washington from the Federal Aviation Administration in the near future.

Richard Branson, the founder of Virgin, said he hopes to fly in 2019 and then send ticket holders thereafter from Spaceport America, the futuristic facility from which he plans to operate in New Mexico.

If all goes according to plan, up to six passengers would reach the edge of space, be able to detach and float around the cabin for a few minutes, while admiring the Earth from above.

Blue Origin, the space company founded by Jeff Bezos, is also planning a key milestone this year: its first flights beyond the confines of space with test pilots. (Bezos also owns The Washington Post.) He also said he would like to carry paying customers this year as well.

These passengers would “marvel at weightless freedom and lose themselves in breathtaking views through the largest windows in the history of spaceflight.”

The company hasn’t set prices or set firm dates, and it only flew its New Shepard rocket twice last year.

– Orion/Space Launch System: While the huge rocket NASA is building is not expected to fly in 2019, the Orion spacecraft is set to pass a key milestone: testing its emergency abort system . After years of delays and cost overruns, NASA hopes the Space Launch System and the Orion spacecraft will finally be able to fly together by 2020.

But many believe the first flight will slip again, and a recent government watchdog recently painted a bad picture of rocket development. In a scathing report, NASA’s inspector general found that the cost of the program could skyrocket to as much as $9 billion.

Despite criticism, the NASA administrator backed the program, saying it was essential for the agency to reach the moon.

– Small launchers and satellites: 2019 could, however, be the year of the small launcher. While SpaceX and others focus on building massive, powerful rockets, some companies have developed much smaller launch vehicles.

They are designed to meet the needs of a revolution in satellite technology that has shrunk in size to that of a shoebox in some cases. Small satellites don’t need huge, expensive rockets, hence the boom in companies rushing to build small launchers.

Rocket Lab, a New Zealand and California-based company, is leading the way. It was launched three times last year and CEO Peter Beck said in an email that “2019 will be even bigger”. The company plans to launch on a month-to-month basis and eventually start operations from the Wallops Flight Facility on the east coast of Virginia.

Virgin Orbit, another Branson company, is planning its first orbital flight this year.

And Vector is also planning its first launch into orbit this year. If successful, he hopes to fly a handful more times. The small satellite industry is at a point where the personal computer was “in 1987, where it’s about to explode,” said Jim Cantrell, the company’s co-founder and CEO.

OneWeb agrees. The company, which is backed by Virgin, Airbus, Qualcomm and others, plans to launch a constellation of satellites in low Earth orbit that would beam the internet to remote parts of the world. It plans to launch its first patch of satellites next month on a rocket made by Arianespace, the French rocket manufacturer.

SpaceX is also getting into the small business of satellites. It is raising $500 million to set up a constellation of satellites called Starlink that could beam the internet around the world.

Last year, it won approval from the Federal Communications Commission to set up up to 12,000 satellites. But others have warned that getting so many spacecraft into orbit will face immense technical and regulatory challenges.

© The Washington Post 2019


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