CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) – Astronauts launched into orbit from the US for the first time in nearly a decade, three countries sent spacecraft to Mars, and robotic explorers grabbed rocks from the moon and gravel from an asteroid to return to Earth.
The space provided moments of hope and glory in an otherwise difficult, stressful year.
It promises to do the same in 2021, with the February landings on Mars and the planned launch of the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope – the next-generation James Webb Space Telescope.
Boeing hopes to catch up with SpaceX in the astronaut launch department, while space tourism can finally take off.
“2021 promises to be just as much a ray of hope for space exploration, maybe even more,” said Scott Hubbard, NASA’s former “Mars Czar” who now teaches at Stanford University.
While the coronavirus pandemic complicated space operations around the world in 2020, most of the high-priority missions remained on track, led by the US, China and UAE in a rush to Mars in July.
The UAE’s first interplanetary spacecraft, an orbiter, will scrutinize Mars’ atmosphere. NASA’s Perseverance rover will land on Feb. 18 in an ancient river delta and bottom where microscopic life once thrived. The rover drills into the dry crust and collects samples for eventual return to Earth.
China’s orbiter-rover duo Tianwen-1 – quest for celestial truth – will also hunt for signs of a bygone life.
The European and Russian space agencies skipped the Mars launch window of 2020, their life-sniffing Mars rover was grounded until 2022 due to technical issues and COVID-19 limitations.
China also turned its gaze to the moon in 2020, then landed and then launched the lunar surface in December with the first lunar rocks collected for return to Earth since the 1970s.
Japan brought back pieces of asteroid Ryugu – the second asteroid batch in ten years. More asteroid monsters to come: NASA’s Osiris-Rex spacecraft sucked up handful of gravel from asteroid Bennu in October to return in 2023.
Elon Musk’s SpaceX, meanwhile, was buzzing in 2020. In May, it became the first private company to put humans into orbit, a feat previously claimed by just three global superpowers. The two test pilots were the first NASA astronauts to fly a new brand of spaceship in nearly 40 years and the first to take off from Florida since the shuttle program ended in 2011.
In November, four more astronauts rode a SpaceX Dragon capsule to the International Space Station. Three weeks later, SpaceX launched its largest cargo shipment to date to the space station for NASA.
“This is an impressive achievement that Americans can be proud of,” said astronaut Senator Mark Kelly of the Dragon capsule’s double head.
Until SpaceX flights, the three-person Russian Soyuz capsules were the only way to get astronauts to the space station after NASA’s shuttles stopped.
NASA’s other hired crew transporter, Boeing, is trying to get its Starliner capsule back into action after a software-destroyed test flight in December 2019. The rebuild – again without anyone on board – is scheduled for spring. If the repair is successful and the capsule finally reaches the space station, the first Starliner astronauts will be able to fly by summer.
Musk closed the year with a stratospheric test flight of Starship, the rocket ship he is building to take people to the moon and Mars. The December 9 demo went better than anyone could have imagined, up to a fiery explosion on landing. Still, Musk was ecstatic.
At the same time, SpaceX is expanding its Dragon-riding clientele. SpaceX expects to launch the first privately funded Dragon flight in a deal arranged by Houston-based Axiom Space by the end of next year.
Axiom’s Michael Lopez-Alegria, an ex-NASA astronaut and former president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, will accompany Israeli businessman Eytan Stibbe and two other paying clients to the space station. Stibbe, a former fighter pilot, was a close friend of Israel’s first astronaut, Ilan Ramon, who died in 2003 aboard space shuttle Columbia.
Will Tom Cruise join them? The actor was in talks with NASA this year about filming a movie in the space station.
“This is the real start of private spaceflight and it will get the ball rolling to multiple orbit private missions per year,” Lopez-Alegria said in an email. “I’ve been preaching for nearly a decade __ that commercial manned space flights are the next big thing.”
Two other aerospace companies – Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and Richard Branson Virgin Galactic – are still conducting test flights and have yet to establish fixed dates for launching customers on short flights to the edge of space and back.
NASA is still aiming for a November debut of its new lunar rocket, the Space Launch System, with an Orion capsule that will be launched without a crew. The Trump administration had set a 2024 deadline for the first moon landing by astronauts since NASA’s Apollo program half a century ago. This month, NASA introduced the 18 astronauts who will train for the lunar program named after Artemis, Apollo’s mythological twin sister.
It remains to be seen how President-elect Joe Biden could change the moon landing program.
“What more can be said about the four years of the Trump administration, they were positive for the US civilian space program,” said John Logsdon, professor emeritus at the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University. “No previous major programs were canceled, the human exploration program was given a clear direction and funding for existing programs was increased.”
“This is a legacy on which the Biden administration can build so that there can be a continued string of successes in the years to come.”
The Associated Press Department of Health and Science is supported by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Science Education Department. The AP is solely responsible for all content.