Are we finally entering the golden age of spaceflight we originally expected (way prematurely) in the 1970s?
Mars mission successes - including China's impressive lander - are adding up. Samples are being returned from asteroids (the likely source of major riches.) The new generation of space telescopes is already revealing wonders, even before the Webb goes up. SpaceX has upturned launch economics with levels of re-use that forced panicking Lockheed/Boeing/ULA to run, desperately to Blue Origin to save them...
...and Sen. Shelby is no longer able to bully Congress into forcing the "Space Launch System (SLS)" down NASA's throat, a wasteful boondoggle so typical of Shelby's corrupt party... as the Spacex "starship," if fully successful, promises the possibility that another boondoggle - sending "American footprints back-to-the-Moon!" - won't be the calamitous distraction that is seemed bound to be (details below)...
...and new satellite comms constellations may soon deliver world access to underserved people, all over the planet. And much more. We are still a civilization that does stuff. And even more important stuff down here, on Earth.
== We're Explorers! ==
A while back I linked you to the announced Phase One awards given by NIAC -- NASA's Innovative & Advanced Concepts program (I am on the advisory council). Great, pioneering projects! Some of them bordering on science fiction. Now come the Phase II and III announcements! Projects that proved themselves to have at least an on-paper or preliminary plausibility to dramatically change our access and future out there in the cosmos!
In case you missed it... here is the descent and landing video from the wonderful Martian arrival of Perseverance. Forget the audio thing! Watch the collated 3 minutes of incredible beauty and stunning competence during arrival. I did NOT expect my breath to catch at the sight of a parachute deploying, or my heart to race at footage of dust blowing from a rocky plain.
More crucially, the "Sky Crane" landing system is now no longer a 'miracle," but a reliable system, proved repeatable. A routine miracle.
Again, we are a people who do such things. Stop letting mafiosi undermine our confidence.
Ooooh, I did warn about this is a short story called “Mars Opposition!”
And if you want to be scared out of your britches, give it a read in The Best of David Brin!
== Back to the moon? ==
I've been a lonely dissenter on the notion of U.S. astronauts rushing back to the dusty/useless lunar plain, when humanity for sure will be going there anyway, in the form of Apollo-wannabe tourists, eager for their coming-of-age ritual. The US+Japan+Europe can accomplish vastly more bypassing that playpen/sandbox, doing things only we can do. And yet... if Elon truly can pull off his next prodigious leap, not just perfecting Starship but especially the super-heavy BFR to launch it out there, and do the refueling thing, then I might change my mind.
But Jeff B and Dynetics should still develop their landers... to sell to those tourists! (While keeping techs proprietary!)
What stands out is that NASA still intends for astronauts to ride to the moon aboard the SLS... there and back via Orion capsule. Using the SpaxeX ship ONLY as a lander! But of course that will happen twice... to use up the SLS monsters in the pipeline. Then Frankenshuttle can quietly fade away.
SpaceX has built and tested a functioning prototype of the elevator that Starship would use to lift and lower astronauts to and from the lunar surface. In blazing speed. This despite getting the least development funding from NASA’s program to incentivize private companies to make lunar landers. “Known as the Human Landing System (HLS) program, NASA selected three providers – a Blue Origin-led consortium, Dynetics, and SpaceX – to build prototypes and compete for one or two follow-on contracts back in April 2020. SpaceX’s Starship offering was deemed the riskiest solution and the company received a middling $135 million to Dynetics’ ~$250 million and the “National Team’s” ~$570 million. For their ~$820 million investment, it’s unclear what exactly NASA has gotten from its two best-funded teams aside from paperwork, a few completed design reviews, and two low-fidelity mockups mostly made out of cardboard, foam, and wood. Meanwhile, in the ten months since SpaceX received its $135 million, the company has built no less than eight full-scale Starship prototypes, performed a dozen or more wet dress rehearsals and static fires with said prototypes, and performed two powered hops and two high-altitude test flights.” ... Oh... the image in this article looks straight out of a 1950s Wiley Ley/Bonestall envisioning!
While I am on record dissing the notion of the U.S. dropping more ambitious and rewarding ventures farther out, in favor of a rush to put more footprints on a dusty-useless lunar plain (yawn! leave that to the kiddies!) I am fine with helping US companies develop landers they can sell or rent to those Apollo-wannabe tourists!
== And on to Venus and Mars ==
The Parker Solar Probe (the author of Sundiver is an official ‘mascot) in one of its swings by Venus looked down on the dark night side... and could see through the clouds to heat-revealed surface features! And more from Parker! NASA’s Parker Solar Probe captured the first complete view of Venus’s dust ring, a band of particles that stretches for the entirety of the planet’s path around the Sun.
Okay, as said above, I am still giddy over the success JPL/NASA had in landing Perseverance on Mars! Only, now that they are sure of the landing system and can optimize its weight parameters, then next time – a suggestion? Next time, LAND the darn descent stage after it finishes delivering the rover! And why not? a weather station? Seismic station? Practice?
Speaking of landers: the commercial lunar vehicle Peregrine, if successful this coming July, would be the first-ever commercial American lander on the moon — and the first United States spacecraft to touch down at all since Apollo 17 in 1972. The same company will then target 2023 to land VIPER, a vastly more sophisticated water-surveying rover near a lunar pole, conveyed moonward by a SpaceX Heavy and brought gently down by a GRIFFIN lander.
And it’s a moonrush! Japanese lunar robotics company ispace will deliver a rover built by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to the moon in 2022, via a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. The Japanese startup says it supply the lander that transports the rover from the moon's orbit to the lunar surface.
Okay, like we needed this? How about a space hurricane in our planet's upper atmosphere -- made up of swirling plasma and "rained" electrons... a 620-mile-wide (1,000-kilometer) plasma mass swirling above the North Pole. It had spiral arms and lasted for nearly eight hours. An amazing image.
== The Sky is For The Rich? ==
A fine review of a new book - Test Gods: Virgin Galactic and the Making of a Modern Astronaut, by Nicholas Scmidle - about the New Space Race, in which whole nations - China, India, Russia and even NASA - struggle to keep pace with the upward momentum of a clade of billionaire dreamers and do-ers... Musk Bezos, Branson, and several you likely haven't heard of. Heinlein predicted such an era in positive terms. I portrayed plusses and minuses, in EXISTENCE. And Wil McCarthy's book Rich Man's Sky depicts worrisome, downside trends toward owner-feudalism in future space..
This article starts with an image of Branson's Virgin Galactic mother ship based at New Mexico's Spaceport America, which gets to use the USG's White' Sands tracking facilities, but is, in consequence, way out east of the town of Truth or Consequences, NM. Those buying tickets on Virgin's deluxe space super-experience will have to leave their luxury jets and ride an air conditioned bus for 40 minutes. Along the way, they will be entertained by an introductory video of yours truly, explaining in advance what they are about to see. Fiorty minutes of me blabbing about the spaceport> That alone is worth the price!
Perhaps that's the closest I will get, to riding the torch. But WTH. We are doing these fine things. That is, if we do all the fine things, including saving the planet, species, civilization, justice and a decent, worthy enlightenment.