“2021 promises to be a bright spot for space exploration, maybe even more so,” said Scott Hubbard, NASA’s former Mars Czar, who now teaches at Stanford University.
Although the coronavirus pandemic has complicated space operations around the world in 2020, most high-priority missions are still well on their way, led by the United States, China and the United Arab Emirates in a stampede to Mars in July.
The UAE’s first interplanetary spacecraft, an orbiter, will study Mars ’atmosphere. NASA’s rover Perseverance is scheduled to land on Feb. 18 on the ancient river delta and lake bed in which microscopic life may once have flourished. The rover will drill a dry crust, collecting samples for a possible return to Earth.
The Chinese duo orbiter-rover Tianwen-1 – the search for heavenly truth – will also hunt for signs of a past life.
The European and Russian space agencies have skipped the window to launch Mars in 2020, their life-sniffing Mars rover landed by 2022 due to technical problems and COVID-19 limitations.
China also turned its gaze to the Moon in 2020, landing and then launching from the surface of the Moon in December, the first lunar rocks collected to return to Earth since the 1970s.
Japan has returned pieces of the asteroid to Ryugu – its second series of asteroids in ten years – with a capsule landing in South Australia. More asteroid samples are on the way: NASA’s Osiris-Rex spacecraft sucked a handful of gravel from the 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 launch people into orbit, an achievement previously claimed by only three global superpowers. The two test pilots were NASA’s first astronauts to fly a new spacecraft brand in nearly 40 years and the first to explode from Florida since the shuttle program ended in 2011.
In November, four more astronauts flew the SpaceX Dragon capsule to the International Space Station. Three weeks later, SpaceX launched its largest cargo shipment to date to a space station for NASA.
“This is an impressive achievement that Americans should be proud of,” said astronaut, converted Senator Mark Kelly, about the double-headed Dragon capsule.
Until the flight of SpaceX, Russian Soyuz capsules for three people were the only way to take astronauts to the space station after NASA’s shuttle shut down.
NASA’s second engaged transporter crew, Boeing, is struggling to get its Starliner capsule back into action after a software-broken test flight in December 2019. The grant – again without anyone on board – is aimed at spring. If repairs begin and the capsule finally reaches the space station, Starliner’s first astronauts could fly by summer.
Musk rounded off the year with a stratospheric test flight of Starship, a rocket ship being built to transport humans to the moon and Mars. The demonstration on December 9 went better than anyone imagined until the fire exploded when touched. Despite this, Musk was elated.
At the same time, SpaceX is expanding its kite-riding clientele. Late next year, SpaceX expects to launch the first privately funded Dragon flight under an agreement contracted by Axiom Space of Houston.
Axiom’s Michael Lopez-Alegria, a former NASA astronaut and former president of the Commercial Space Flight Federation, will accompany Israeli businessman Eytan Stibbe and two other customers paying to the space station. Stibbe, a former fighter pilot, was a close friend of Israel’s first astronaut, Ilan Ramon, who died in the Columbia space shuttle in 2003.
Will Tom Cruise join them? This year, the actor talked to NASA about shooting the film on the space station.
“This is the true beginning of a private space flight, and the ball will turn towards more private missions into orbit each year,” Lopez-Alegria said in an email. “For almost a decade, I’ve been preaching that commercial human space flight is the next giant leap.”
Two other space travel companies – Jeff Bezos ’Blue Origin and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic – are still conducting test flights and have not yet set firm dates for launching customers on short flights to the edge of space and back.
NASA is still aiming for the November debut of its rocket of the new moon, the Space Launch System, with an Orion capsule to launch unmanned. The Trump administration has set a 2024 deadline for the first landing on the moon by astronauts from NASA’s Apollo program half a century ago. Just this month, NASA unveiled 18 astronauts to train for a lunar program named after Artemis, the mythological sister of the Apollo twins.
It remains to be seen how President-elect Joe Biden could change the moon landing program.
“Whatever else can be said about the four years of the Trump administration, they have been positive for the U.S. civilian space program,” remarked John Logsdon, an emeritus professor at the George Washington University Institute for Space Policy. “No major program has been canceled, the human research program has been given a clear direction and funding has been increased for existing programs.”
“This is a legacy that the Biden administration can build on, so there will be a string of successes in the coming years.”