With the death of Neal Armstrong on Saturday, August 25, 2012, some may look back at his monumental feat, and then turn to the present and think that the human race has lost its way space. Not quite.
In June, the Chinese government launched three of their astronauts into orbit: two men and one woman. They flew into space aboard what they call the Shenzhou 9. Shortly after reaching orbit, they docked their spaceship with an already orbiting space lab, Tiangong 1, a very small space station.
The Chinese Shenzhou 9 is derived from the Russian Soyuz, which the Russians have used since 1967. The Shenzhou 9 is a bit larger and is enhanced in many ways and it was entirely built by the Chinese.
At the same time, the International Space Station, continuously inhabited by astronauts since 2001, houses an international team of six astronauts: three Russians, two Americans, and one Dutch (from the European Space Agency).
The California based Space X recently delivered a cargo ship, the Dragon, to and from the International Space Station. It was the first commercial spacecraft to manage such a feat. Dragons will now join the Russian Progress, the Japanese HTV, and the European ATV in regular cargo runs to the station. In November, Orbital Space Systems, another U.S. commercial spacecraft corporation, will add their Cygnus cargo ship to the list.
The U.S. Air Force X37B, a small unmanned spaceplane built by Boeing, just landed at Vandenberg Air Force Base on June 16, after spending 469 days in orbit. A second X37B (which flew around the Earth for 224 days in 2010) will be launched back into orbit in October. In 2011 Boeing announced plans to build the X37C, a larger variant of its current spaceplane, and capable of transporting up to six astronauts into space.
On August 5, the Curiosity rover arrived on the surface of Mars. It is a nuclear powered machine the size of a Mini Cooper automobile, weighing 2000 pounds. Among its science instruments is a high powered laser able to burn holes in Martian rocks so that it can analyze them. There is a certain bit of irony in this. In 1898, H.G. Wells published his novel, The War of the Worlds, in which he had the Martians invade and attack Earth using death rays. Now, in 2012, we will invade Mars with a machine sporting just such a death ray—albeit for entirely different reasons.
Meanwhile, circling above Mars, three satellites, two from the United States and one from Europe are gathering photos and other scientific data. They also serve as telecommunication satelites to relay data from Curiosity. And on the surface, the Opportunity rover continues its mission on a different part of Mars which began in 2004. Incidentally, the United States is alone in having successfully landed machines on Mars.
Elsewhere, the European Venus Express circles Venus and sends back scientific information. The American Messenger probe is currently orbiting Mercury, taking pictures and gathering other information.
Juno, launched August 5, 2011, continues its long trip to Jupiter. Orbital insertion around Jupiter will occur in 2016.
New Horizons is now well past the orbit of Uranus and is scheduled to reach Pluto in July of 2015. It’s still two years from the orbit of Neptune.
The space probe Dawn just broke orbit around the asteroid Vesta. It spent a year there. Powered by an ion space drive, it is now traveling on to the dwarf planet Ceres, where it will enter orbit in February, 2015.
Lockheed Martin just finished major construction on the first space bound Orion capsule, designed to ferry astronauts into deep space. This first test capsule is designed to fly 3600 miles from Earth, orbit the planet twice and then return at 25,000 miles per hour to test the capsule’s systems, especially its heat shield. It will mimic the return conditions that astronauts experience as they come home from voyages beyond low Earth orbit. As Orion reenters the atmosphere, it will endure temperatures up to 4000 degrees F., higher than any human spacecraft since astronauts returned from the moon (on flights between 1968 and 1972—Apollo 8, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16 and 17).
On June 15, 2012, NASA scientists reported that Voyager 1, which is still operational, may be very close to entering interstellar space and becoming the first human-made object to leave the Solar System. It is now about eleven billion miles from Earth, far beyond the orbit of Pluto. Launched in 1977, its original purpose was to photograph and study Jupiter and Saturn. It carries a 12-inch gold-plated copper disk that contains sounds and images selected to portray the diversity of life and culture on Earth. The contents of the record were selected for NASA by a committee chaired by Carl Sagan of Cornell University. Dr. Sagan and his associates assembled 115 images and a variety of natural sounds. To this they added musical selections from different cultures and eras, and spoken greetings in fifty-five languages.
Although the U.S. currently cannot launch Americans into space, Americans nevertheless will remain in orbit continuously aboard the International Space Station (thanks to hitching rides on Russian Soyuz spaceships). Since 2001 there has never been a moment that one could look up at the sky and not find an American astronaut in space. Those who imagine that the American space program is moribund since the retirement of the Space Shuttle simply are not paying attention. There are more active, functioning space probes on the final frontier than at any time in human history—only a few of which were mentioned in this blog post. And we stand on the brink of a new space rush. Planetary Resources intends to begin mining asteroids. Five American corporations—Space X, Sierra Nevada Corporation, Blue Origin, Boeing and Lockheed-Martin—are in the process of building human-crewed spaceships. Within the next five years, the United States will have not just one, but multiple ways of taking people into orbit and beyond.
The space age has barely begun.