Not Dead Yet

In the wake of the shuttle’s final landing—not to mention the Russian cargo ship crash—I hear a lot of hand-wringing about the end of space exploration. When I tell people about this site, sometimes they’ll say, “But I thought the space program was over.”

Space exploration is at a crossroads, to be sure. Tight budgets and short-sighted hostility toward science on Capitol Hill mean the future is cloudy to say the least. For the US astronaut corps in particular, things are up in the air. (Or not, to be more accurate.)

Here’s the thing, though. Like the poor guy in the plague cart in Monte Python and the Holy Grail, space exploration just isn’t dead. In fact, it feels fine and is thinking about talking a walk.

Here are a few counter-examples to the doom-and-gloom (there are many others):

  • Just this morning NASA launched the twin lunar Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) spacecraft from Cape Canaveral. GRAIL-A is scheduled to reach the moon on New Year’s Eve 2011, while GRAIL-B will arrive New Year’s Day 2012. The two solar-powered spacecraft will fly in tandem orbits around the moon to measure its gravity field. Lunar explorers hope the mission will answer longstanding questions about the moon ‘from crust to core.’
  • Today’s launch follows another just last month, in which NASA sent the Juno probe on its way to Jupiter. See more.
  • The Mars Science Laboratory is ready to head for the skies next month. (If you’re keeping score at home, that will be three pure-science, deep-space mission launches in four months.)
  • Mars explorers recently reported that the seemingly-unstoppable robotic geologist Opportunity is finding things at Endeavour crater that it has never seen before, adding new life to a mission that has already been epic. Observations “suggest that rock exposures on Endeavour’s rim date from early in Martian history and include clay minerals that form in less-acidic wet conditions, possibly more favorable for life.” In a teleconference last week, one mission scientist compared this new phase of exploration to a “whole new mission.” More information, including lots of pictures, here.
  • In the meantime, there are ongoing robotic missions underway right this minute at Saturn, the asteroid belt, Venus, Mercury, and another on its way to Pluto. Pluto! – one of the only planets/dwarf planets/trans-Neptunian objects/thingamajigs…worlds…that we’ve never seen up close.
  • Even in the U.S. human spaceflight program, things aren’t holding completely still during this hiatus.

    This week I was lucky enough to be invited, on behalf of Riding with Robots readers, to witness a ground test of NASA’s new five-segment solid rocket motor that will be used in future heavy-lift vehicles that will carry astronauts and their gear.

    It was an amazing experience. Flame shot hundreds of feet from the test motor during the firing at ATK‘s facility in Promontory, Utah. The ground shook. The air shook. It was so bright you couldn’t look at it directly.

    The Rocket's Red Glare
    The Rocket's Red Glare - solid rocket motor ground test September 8, 2011 at ATK's facility in Promontory, Utah. Image credit: Bill Dunford

    The motor was 154 ft long, generated 3.6 million pounds of thrust, 22 million horsepower, and was anchored on a concrete block that goes 40 feet deep. The segment casings on this test motor flew on several shuttle missions as part of the solid rocket boosters, which were manufactured at this same site.

    See more pictures and video.

    Exactly when this rocket might carry a crew is still under discussion, but at least the planning and research is not standing still.

So there’s hope. Keep looking up!

Bill

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