2021: A space crossroads

2021: A space crossroads
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In 1968, the epic science fiction film “2001: A Space Odyssey” was released. Produced and directed by the legendary Stanley Kubrick, “2001” foresaw a future in which commercial airlines would regularly ferry passengers to and from orbital space stations as well as the Moon, and humanity would have the means to travel to the outer planets of our solar system. Sadly, this predicted future did not become a reality 33 years later, and not even today, 53 years later.

But things may be about to change. By the end of the 2020s, many of the predictions of “2001: A Space Odyssey” could very well come to pass — and the current year of 2021 will play a critical role in achieving this vision. This year is already shaping up to be one of the most significant years yet in our exploration of space, and it is laying the groundwork for an extraordinary decade.

International year of Mars

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The exploration of Mars will play a leading role in these achievements. Three missions were launched toward Mars last summer, and all three are scheduled to arrive at Mars in February. Never before have so many robotic missions traveled to Mars simultaneously. 

The United Arab Emirates’ first Mars mission, an orbital spacecraft called Hope, is scheduled to arrive at Mars on Feb. 9. China’s first Mars mission, Tianwen-1, which carries both an orbiter and a rover, is scheduled to arrive in Mars orbit on Feb. 10. But the Chinese rover will not attempt landing on the surface until sometime in May 2021. Finally, NASA’s most ambitious Mars mission yet, Mars 2020, with its rover named Perseverance, is scheduled to land on Feb. 18.

Perseverance, which is the size of an SUV, carries an impressive array of experiments, including the Ingenuity helicopter. If successful, Ingenuity will be the first aircraft to fly on Mars, delivering spectacular images and proving that human explorers will be able to utilize drone technology on the surface of Mars. Perseverance also carries the Mars Oxygen ISRU (In-Situ Resource Utilization) Experiment (MOXIE), the first experiment to utilize Martian resources by harnessing the components of the Martian atmosphere to create oxygen. Perseverance will also search for signs of past life and collect soil samples that will be sorted and cached, to be retrieved and delivered back to Earth during a future mission.  

Preparing for Artemis 1

In Jan. 2021, NASA performed the “Green Run” test for the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket. While the test firing of this new, massive rocket cut off earlier than planned, NASA has scheduled a second test at the end of February and still hopes to conduct the Artemis 1 mission by the end of this year. The SLS rocket will propel an un-crewed Orion Crew Vehicle into orbit around the Moon, reaching the furthest distance that a crew-rated vehicle has ever traveled from Earth. It will also prepare the path for human missions to the surface of the Moon later this decade and then missions to Mars in the 2030s.

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The Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program is poised to go to the Moon

In April 2018, NASA established the Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program. This program, in which NASA contracts with commercial entities to provide transportation services (small robotic landers and rovers) to the surface of the Moon, has the goal of exploring for lunar resources, testing ISRU concepts and performing science, all at lower cost through competition.

This year, only three years later, this program is slated to launch its first mission to the Moon. Astrobotic, with its Peregrine lander, is scheduled to launch on a ULA Vulcan lander late in 2021 to transport a set of payloads for NASA and commercial customers to the surface of the Moon. If successful, this will mark the first time a private company has landed on another planetary surface. In fact, it will be the first time that any entity other than a superpower (the U.S., Russia and China) has done so.

Commercial space builds momentum 

January also saw the successful test flight of Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket and crew capsule. Blue Origin aims to be ready to start launching customers on sub-orbital flights later this year. Virgin Galactic is also making steady progress to launch its spaceplane, named Unity, on suborbital flights. If these companies are successful, thousands of private citizens could potentially visit suborbital space in the next few years.

Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket successfully reached orbit this January as well. Instead of being launched in the conventional way, vertically from a launch pad, this launch vehicle uses a technique called air launch, with the rocket being launched from under the wing of a converted Boeing 747 carrier plane. Virgin Orbit will begin launching satellites into orbit this year. 

In March, Boeing will conduct the next (un-crewed) test of its Starliner commercial crew vehicle. Boeing is then expected to be able to launch crew members to the International Space Station (ISS) possibly as early as June 2021. Such a development would provide a second commercial crew option, in addition to SpaceX’s Dragon capsule, that can ferry astronauts from American soil to the ISS. The SpaceX Crew Dragon safely began delivering crew members to and from the ISS in 2020.

SpaceX is also seeking to advance its Mars ambitions. If all goes well, SpaceX will attempt an un-crewed orbital mission with Starship later this year, with the goal that this vehicle may one day ferry as many as 100 passengers to Mars at a time. 

Blue Origin also plans to take its next steps toward achieving its ambitious space goals in 2021, with the tentatively scheduled premiere launch of the New Glenn launch system. Blue Origin anticipates that this rocket will be capable of delivering large payloads and crew to Low Earth Orbit (LEO) or geostationary orbit. Blue Origin also hopes the vehicle will launch its Blue Moon lander to the lunar surface in the next several years.

The biggest space telescope yet

One of the most anticipated scientific instruments in history, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), is expected to launch this coming Halloween. Roughly the size of a tennis court, JWST is the largest, most powerful space telescope ever built and will orbit the sun at a distance of 940,000 miles from Earth at the second Lagrange point, also known in shorthand as L2. A Lagrange point is a location in space where the gravitational forces of the two large bodies cancel each other out, enabling small orbit objects to achieve equilibrium. JWST will be able see even further than the Hubble Space Telescope, viewing distant galaxies in their infancy, and for the first time humanity will be able to observe exoplanets around distant stars through wavelengths. 

 A remarkable decade

In the next several years, humanity will almost certainly surpass all previous accomplishments in space, sending human explorers farther from Earth than ever before and enabling ordinary citizens to experience spaceflight firsthand. By the year 2031, the capabilities predicted in “2001: A Space Odyssey” may no longer be science fiction, but instead may become the realities of human spaceflight and exploration. 

Chris Carberry is CEO of Explore Mars, Inc. and the author of “Alcohol in Space.” Rick Zucker is vice president, policy of Explore Mars, Inc.