December 6, 2014Bobak6 comments

Spaceships are tough work. From the time people make their first PowerPoint presentations on concepts to the time they gather data often takes ten, twenty years. A mission like NASA’s Pluto New Horizons sent out its first major announcement of opportunity – this is where a spacecraft concept exists, but actual instruments are solicited – in 2001. They’ll get their closest flyby of Pluto on July 14, 2015. My baby, Mars Curiosity, started out in the early 2000’s. I started work on it in November 2003, while landing was a short 9 years later, on August 5, 2012 – and that’s when the science mission began.

Today was the incredible launch and (even more importantly) landing of the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle. Almost as perfect as can be for a maiden voyage.


Photo credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

From launch to landing, we were treated to stunning visuals of the fairing opening to reveal the spacecraft, the Earth, and finally the splashdown. All of this from a space agency many had written off as dead after the conclusion of the Space Shuttle program. And yet here we were, pushing the limits, testing a human-rated vehicle, taking it farther than any human-rated vehicle since the Apollo era.

Still, space is about patience. Today was a tremendous accomplishment, but there’s no doubt the teams of people working on Orion will take back all the data they gathered today to make improvements, plan their next tests, work on addressing any minor things that may have come up today. Orion’s next flight will be Exploration Mission 1, currently slated for late 2018. On that date, it will fly atop the Space Launch System (SLS), NASA’s next generation heavy-lift vehicle (akin to the Saturn V used for Apollo missions). And in 2021, if all goes well, we should see the first humans traveling distances via Orion that humans haven’t traveled in over forty years. In the meantime, NASA will be busy with many other missions. Some of the highlights in the next few years include:

  • New Horizons – launched in 2006, New Horizons will come out of hibernation (this Saturday!) for the last time before beginning it’s final approach to Pluto, flying by in July 2015. It will be the first time we’ve visited Pluto, and the first time we’ll be able to resolve features on the surface.
  • Juno – launched in 2011, it will arrive at Jupiter in July 2016, orbiting the planet, it’s measurements capable of telling us more about he formation of this gas giant.
  • Mars InSight – a robotic lander to Mars to study seismology will launch in 2018, and arrive months later.

Beyond that there’s hopefully a wealth of missions more, some already in progress, like Mars 2020 – the follow-up to Curiosity, James Webb Telescope (even more powerful and capable of looking into the history of the cosmos than Hubble), and one of my favorites, a possible mission to Europa, Jupiter’s second moon, and one of the most exciting places outside of Earth in the search for life. I’m currently working on a study to demonstrate whether a Europa mission that meets many scientific goals is possible, if we’re successful, we could launch a mission as early as 2022.

But ultimately, space exploration is about patience. Brilliant men and women realize the potential to learn more about the world around us, about the context for our planet and our lives, and it takes thousands of people years to make these dreams a reality, but in the end, I hope, it provides us all with the realization that we should dream big and dare mighty things.


Note: I wrote this as much for myself as anyone else. As I write this, it’s very difficult to reconcile many of the recent human events with the vision of a greater future I’ve wanted to be a part of since childhood. I’ve always hoped that space exploration would bring the world together, to help us recognize that our planet is a tiny thing that we all share and that ultimately we must all be good neighbors to one another. I still hope that today, I just needed to remind myself.


  1. Nik Manak says:

    Love the thoughts here, Bobak.

    I also agree on space exploration bringing the world together. We’re on the cusp of so many new horizons that all have the potential to change how we view the world, and invalidate so many old sources of conflict.

    If we have fusion, graphene-enabled fuel cells, and batteries with twenty times the capacity and a thousand times the life, what is the point of fighting over fuel sources anymore?

    If we have ready access to space, where even a very small asteroid has more readily available resources than the entirety of what’s been mined in human history, included rare precious metals that make modern technologies possible… what’s the point in fighting over natural resources?

    If one looks down at our small planet from space, and realizes how much there is out there, fighting over little scraps of territory on our world seems to require an almost ridiculously myopic perspective.

    We’re used to living with and fighting over scarcity and limited space. Space exploration can give us a future without scarcity and with functionality unlimited space. That’s a future worth working toward.

    • Nik Manak says:

      *including, *functionally

      Clearly the world will still need proofreaders.

      • Matt Thompson says:

        Seriously? That’s your contribution to the conversation?


        In nine days SpaceX will be launching its fifth resupply mission to ISS, and with any luck, they’ll be attempting something never dine before: landing a stage ona “solid” surface. As a first attempt to do so, the barge landing has a slim chance of success, but I’m confident that this is the start of an entirely new way of thinking. SLS is completely disposable. If SpaceX pulls this off, it will also number the end days of disposable rockets in the near future. It is a great time to be alive. This new space race promises new ideas and a new outlook on exploration. Even though I sometimes wish I had been born in 1950, I’m glad to be here for this show.

        • Bobak says:

          Matt, I think we’re all excited for SpaceX to pull it off, remember that a very significant part of SpaceX’s funding comes from NASA, so we’re on the same page here. And the Falcon 9 Heavy if it comes to fruition will be a sight to see. At this point I haven’t seen what plans they have beyond that, but what I have seen on SLS indicates it’ll have still significantly greater performance than the F9H. I too think it’s a great time to be alive – and while I love the early exploration era, I think of all the things we’ve done since then (discovered exoplanets, visited other worlds, created an international space station that has been in operation for a decade), and think this is a great time. Of course we couldn’t have done it without them, or all the people who carried it forward.

  2. The one – crucial – difference between Orion and the planetary missions you mention is that those have defined destinations (New Horizons even more than one now) but “America’s New Spaceship” simply has not. It is *not* the means for a crewed mission to Mars anytime soon – as some naively believe – but just a small part of the infrastructure eventually needed for such a goal.

    Next on the agenda for both NASA and ESA – supplying Oion’s Service Module – should be clear announcements of the near-term *possibilities* offered by the Orion/SM/SLS trio beyond 2020 and what extra money (on both sides of the Atlantic though mainly your’s) would be required to actually see any of those plans become reality.

    So far in official NASA statements we have only an ill-defined Asteroid Redirect Mission – with an increasingly fluent timeline – for 2021+ and a mission to Mars orbit (no landing) in the 2030s as proclaimed goals for the crewed Orion missions EM-2 and beyond. And no secure long-term funding strategy for either …

    • Bobak says:

      You’re absolutely correct. I would also like to see a more clear vision for the future of Orion and deep space human flight. There are only two points that I can really make:

      1) Unfortunately the way budgets and timelines work, it’s nearly impossible to define timeframes for things beyond a few years, which scales greatly with cost. The more ambitious & costly a project, the more likely it is subject to change with changing political tides, sadly. There’s a lot of study to show that even Apollo was operating on the brink of political change (some argue that it was more rhetoric than actual plan from Kennedy).

      2) I’m still optimistic that this is a little of the classic exploration case of we don’t know what will happen once we have the capability. Some of great advances have come as tangents to an attempt to solve a much more complex problem.

      Still, I agree. It’d be nice to know I’ll see these things happen sooner than later.


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