Quite Possibly Our Favorite Instrumentality of an Inefficient and Deeply Flawed Federal Government — And The One with the Most Space Rockets.

Star Bound №21 The Year in Space 2022: NASA Steals the Spotlight

Bruce McCandless III

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Global Defense, a Moon Mission, and More

It was a busy year in space, featuring an unprecedented number of launches by a large and growing cast of rocket slingers. Nevertheless, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) dominated the headlines, notching a string of high-profile successes that put the U.S. back squarely in the lead in international spacefaring.

Not that other countries, and other companies, were unsuccessful. China continues to impress with its methodical approach to low earth orbit activities. The Chinese began full-time residency in their Tiangong (“Heavenly Palace”) space station in June of this year, and launched the final module of the station on October 31. South Korea sent a rocket to the moon. SpaceX has made trips to and from low-earth orbit seem almost routine, sending both cargo and American astronauts and tourists to the International Space Station and back. Rocket Lab sent NASA’s CAPSTONE probe to the moon to test a new type of orbit that the space agency thinks its proposed lunar space station could use. Upstart rocket companies — Blue Origin, Rocket Lab, Astra — seem to throw something new into the heavens every week.

But let’s hand it to The Meatball. The top three stories of the year all involved NASA projects, as follows:

Target Acquired

Best Effort to Save the Planet. It’s still possible to hear intelligent people criticize investment in space exploration as a distraction from problems right here on Earth. There are plenty of those, to be sure, including our planet’s apparent warming as a result of fossil fuel use. To be sure, rockets use fossil fuels as well — lots of them. But it’s hard to image a more important environmental mission than developing a defense to incoming asteroids, which have the potential to destroy every eco-system we have here on the Blue Marble. That’s why NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) was so important. It was a kamikaze flight, in a sense — a probe launched from Earth several million miles into space with the aim of smacking an asteroid called Didymos. Didymos, it turns out, is actually two little asteroids, with the smaller called Dimorphos and classified as an “asteroid moonlet” of the larger. The DART probe left Earth atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket in late November of 2021 and smashed into Dimorphos on September 26 of this year. It basically flew itself, executing a series of automated course corrections as it approached Didymos and transmitting strangely hypnotic images of its target as it approached. And yes, the mission was a success. We managed to alter the asteroid’s trajectory by some 33 degrees. Not much, maybe, but at the distances involved in asteroid hunting, 33 degrees may be enough. It’s worth noting that NASA’s test was accomplished as Russia continued to occupy portions of Ukraine by force, reinforcing its image as an international thug. The notion that we in the U.S. are trying to save the world while Vladimir Putin is busy terrorizing his neighbors is a potent one. Let’s hope it sinks in around the globe.

It’s like having the new iPhone camera, only in space.

Best Deployment of Ground-Breaking Scientific Technology. The James Webb Space Telescope was sent into space from South America on an Ariane rocket in late December of 2021. Like a superhero changing into his (or her) costume as he runs, JWST unfolded and deployed its mirrors and solar panels as it hurried to its destination at Lagrange Point L2, which it reached on January 24, 2022. At L2, almost a million miles from Earth, the gravitational forces acting on the satellite from Earth and the sun are roughly equal, which will help Webb maintain its stable “angel” orbit. Hailed as the “Science Breakthrough of 2022” by Science Magazine, Webb started sending back images from space in July, and has so far captured stunning vistas of, among other things, exoplanets, star formation in the so-called Pillars of Creation in the Eagle Nebula, and two of the oldest and most distant galaxies ever seen. Which is great, but even greater is the fact that Webb is just getting started. The best is yet to come. Combined with news that NASA is seeking ways to boost Hubble’s orbit and keep that set of instruments flying, it was a banner year for space astronomy fans.

My favorite Artmis image — Courtesy of Tim Gagnon.

Best Mega-Rocket Blast-Off. NASA’s ambitious new deep space launch system (SLS) and its Orion capsule finally got off the ground for a flight to the moon on November 16, 2022. The Artemis 1 mission was scrubbed so many times that even the most optimistic spaceflight fans were starting to get a little punch drunk. But launch it did, beginning a three-and-a-half-week journey around the moon (several times) and back for a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean on December 11. The flight wasn’t perfect — no mission is — but it was pretty damn good. The stage is now set for a crewed hop to the moon and, after that, an actual landing on Earth’s oldest satellite: NASA plans to use SLS/Orion to send four human beings to the lunar surface in 2025.

Artemis’s flight coincided with the fiftieth anniversary of our last mission to the moon, Apollo 17, in 1972. But NASA has a more ambitious agenda in mind this time. We won’t just be collecting rocks and regolith. Rather, the aim is to establish a more or less permanent base, which would allow scientists and engineers to explore and start harvesting resources — water, for one — from the moon. A lunar base would also serve in part as a preparatory station for a later mission to Mars. Mars! We’ve been dreaming of visiting the red planet in person for decades. Getting back to the moon is seen by NASA as a way station and test bed for that trip.

The Artemis launch was in some senses not just a space flight but also a political test. The program has critics. It’s not that they want the mission to fail, exactly. It’s just that they think SLS is a misguided attempt at what might be called “nostalgic rocketry” — i.e., the way rocketry was done when only two nations in the world knew how to do it, and there weren’t private companies around to take on a portion of the considerable financial risk and possibly bring innovation to the table quickly and efficiently.

SLS was commissioned way back in 2010, a holdover from the Obama-era decision to scrap George W. Bush’s ramshackle Constellation program. The SLS is many years behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget. It’s been plagued by development problems that have left many observers wondering why we don’t just let craftier, nimbler contractors like SpaceX build our rockets instead of having the U.S. government do things the way they were done in the heady days of Apollo, Nixon, and the Miracle Mets. Indeed, SpaceX is rapidly nearing completion of its own spacecraft to rival the SLS/Orion configuration. Starship will be powered by the biggest and most powerful rocket stack ever constructed. According to MuskNation, it will be able to fly human beings to Mars just as capably, if not more so, than anything NASA can build.

One journalist characterized NASA’s Artemis launch as a “last chance” for the agency to stay in the crewed mission game. I’m not sure that’s true, but it’s plausible. Artemis is a momentum changer. For better or worse, the agency is back in the forefront of human planetary exploration. I for one am hoping that it stays there, but I certainly agree that the position should be earned and not simply inherited. Let the new Mars race begin!

Get those handkerchiefs out.

Best Movie, GAF View-Master Slide Show, or PowerPoint Presentation: Amazon’s Goodnight Oppy, the story of NASA’s Spirit and Opportunity Mars rovers, is a beautiful, manipulative, danceable, anthropomorphizing mess. You’ll cry six times while watching. Who knew it was possible to mourn a robot? Richard Linklater’s Apollo 10 ½ comes in a distant second. Eclectic and sweet, the film suffers a partial depressurization after twenty minutes and the plot promptly leaks out. The movie has less gravity than a minor asteroid. Moonfall, by the way, wins our first annual Mars Climate Orbiter Award for egregious errors of logic and plausibility. Not that it wasn’t fun, in a fact-free sort of way, but please, Hollywood: Read a Book.

Best Television Series: For All Mankind takes the prize again, beating out such worthy competitors as The Expanse and Andor. FAM continues to be the craziest space opera on TV — an episodic cloud of dust and gas that continues to birth compelling international romance, fusion-powered spaceships, and terrifying Mars quakes on a regular basis. As the Eridians say: Amaze!

Worst Performance in a Supporting Role: Russian space czar Dimitry Rogozin went on a series of rants after Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine brought staunch condemnation from the United States and Europe. The bombastic Rogozin, once thought to be impish but now decidedly troll-like, threatened Russian withdrawal from the International Space Station and ridiculed American rocketry, suggesting that NASA’s best route to the ISS would be on a broomstick. Cooler heads eventually prevailed, and Rogozin was relieved of his duties as head of Roscosmos. It was recently reported that Rogozin was injured by Ukrainian shelling while heading up a Russian paramilitary unit called the Tsarist Wolves. We’ll give the man a B for Bombast and an F for Fostering Cooperation in Space. Good riddance.

Best Space-Related Political Gesture: When Russian troops marched into Ukraine in February, they and their supporting artillery and missile strikes destroyed much of Ukraine’s internet network. Rogue capitalist Elon Musk volunteered to provide Ukraine with Starlink terminals to replace that capability by tapping into the Starlink communications satellite network. At this point some 20,000 terminals are operating in Ukraine, providing invaluable and (until now, at least) free internet connectivity to Ukrainian government entities and citizens alike.

The Cosmosphere: You Won’t Believe What’s Inside.

Best Space Museum, Gift Shop, Library, Alligator Farm, or Roadside Stand. Give it up for Hutchinson, Kansas’s Cosmosphere, which continues to punch way above its weight and refuses to stop believing in itself. In addition to housing a fantastic collection of space artefacts, the Cosmosphere went out of its way to honor America’s last mission to the moon, hosting a star-studded gala in December timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 17 flight. Kudos to Cosmos! If you get half a chance to visit the good folks in Kansas, drive, bike, or ride a tornado to get there. It’s well worth the visit.

Best Podcast: This is a difficult category to judge, as there are so many great podcasts out there to pick between. My favorite series continues to be the infectiously enthusiastic Space ‘n Things, hosted by (no bias here, I promise) my friends Emily Carney and Dave Giles, though I do miss their weekly round-up of space news. Also worthy of obsessive listening are Beth Mund’s Casual Space; The Interplanetary Podcast, with Matt Russell and a rotating cast of very funny co-hosts; Rod Pyle and Tariq Malik’s This Week in Space; and Paul Ring’s The Launchpad. And there are others! Many others! It’s a great age for active listening.

He’s an author too.

Best Book, Blog, or Fanzine: It was another terrific year for space books, and frankly I’m still reading. It’s too early to make the call on a “best book,” but among the contenders are Super Hero Fred Haise’s Never Panic Early (with Bill Moore), Andy Saunders’s Apollo Remastered, Margaret Weitekamp’s Space Craze, and Roland Miller’s big space shuttle recap, The Space Shuttle: A Mission-by-Mission Celebration of NASA’s Extraordinary Spaceflight Program.

Best Sports Season for a Team with a Space-Related Name. Um, the Houston Astros — and yes, that’s short for “Astronauts” — won their second World Series title in October, bringing a shot of redemption to the Space City after the club’s first Series win was blemished by a cheating scandal. There have been no allegations of malfeasance this time, and Jose Altuve and the boys brought a little glitter home to the home of the Johnson Space Center.

The HelMMUt.

Best Space Tribute to Our Nation’s Spacefarers by a National Military Academy. OK, so you knew this one was coming. The U.S. Naval Academy’s tribute to NASA by way of its alternate uniform for the Army-Navy game was, in a word, awesome. It even featured a certain USNA alum jetting off into the cosmos in the Manned Maneuvering Unit, which was never the Navy’s fastest jet but was certainly one of its coolest. Two words to conclude, then: GO NAVY!

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Bruce McCandless III

I'm an Austin-based writer trying to figure out space, science, and Texas politics. For more, see: www.brucemccandless.com