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The year in space

From left: U. of Ariz., NASA/ESA/STScI, SpaceX
The top space stories of 2008 include, from left: the Phoenix Mars Lander
mission; the direct sighting of planets in the dusty disks around Fomalhaut and other stars; and SpaceX's successful orbital launch of the Falcon 1 rocket.

What is to be done about the space shuttle fleet and the shuttle's troubled successor? Who will the next NASA administrator be? Will a new generation of spaceships actually take flight in 2009? Will shifts in the economic climate dim the prospects for space entrepreneurs, just as they did eight years ago? Or will pioneering ventures actually prove that space sightseeing isn't just for millionaires anymore?

The questions about our future in space far outnumber the answers as 2008 morphs into 2009. But the developments of the past year suggest the likely directions for the year ahead.

Transition time at NASA
We've reviewed the space scene at the end of every year since 1997, but this year looms as one of the biggest transitional times ever, ranking right up there with the post-Columbia rethinking at NASA in 2003-2004. In early 2004, President Bush set NASA on a "new course," aimed at retiring the shuttle fleet by 2010 and returning to the moon by 2020 - and ever since then, the space agency has been building the groundwork for that course change.

Now President-elect Barack Obama's transition team is asking fresh questions about where NASA's heading. By all accounts, the re-examination of space policy is among the most thoroughgoing efforts ever made by an incoming administration.

It's been widely reported that Obama's space transition team, headed by former NASA associate administrator Lori Garver, has been asking tough questions about the cost and the requirements for NASA's Ares rocket development project. It's also been reported that the questions are bugging the space agency's current administrator, Mike Griffin - to the extent that he has questioned the transition team's expertise in turn.

The frictions between Griffin and the Obama team are understandable: He's been gearing up for the post-shuttle era ever since he took the reins at NASA in 2005, and his own transition plan is just about to shift into a higher gear: The first test flight of NASA's Ares 1-X rocket, designed to put astronauts into orbit, is due to launch in mid-2009. To question the plan now must seem illogical to the man who prides himself on his engineering smarts and once compared himself to Mr. Spock of "Star Trek" fame.

However, the space transition team has been reaching out to a wide spectrum of space agency officials, industry executives and space activists (including, for example, the Mars Society), and thus they are quite aware of the new players in the space game.

If the rockets that are already being used for NASA's unmanned launches (such as Lockheed Martin's Delta 4 and Atlas 5) and the rockets that are already being developed for NASA's future use (such as SpaceX's Falcon 9 and Orbital's Taurus 2) prove adequate to put humans into orbit ... well, why should NASA spend billions of dollars to develop the Ares 1, which is facing significant design challenges?

Granted, those are big ifs. And there may be other good reasons for NASA to go ahead with the Ares, just as there are good reasons for the Air Force to have their own planes rather than renting them. The transition team is just trying to get a sense of the tradeoffs involved.

Another consideration is Obama's strong focus on climate change and its implications - a focus that came through loud and clear last week through his appointments to top science posts. Obama will likely want his NASA administrator to take a similarly strong stand on the importance of Earth observation and climate science.

Griffin might not be a good fit for that role, especially considering the flap he caused last year when he told NPR, "I am not sure that it is fair to say that [global warming] is a problem we must wrestle with."

Bottom line: Space insiders don't expect Griffin to hang on very long once Obama takes office. Check back in a year (or a month) to find out how NASA's direction has changed.

'Go' time for private space ventures
If 2009 is a big transition time for NASA, it's just as much a transition year for private space ventures. In fact, some of those ventures (such as SpaceX, Orbital and Planetspace) are hoping to get NASA to sign up as a customer for resupply flights to the international space station after the shuttle fleet is retired.

SpaceX in particular has a lot to celebrate this holiday season: The California-based company notched its first successful orbital launch of the Falcon 1 rocket in September, and this month it met its delivery schedule for the bigger Falcon 9, which is destined for NASA's testing (and perhaps eventual use).

NASA announced its picks for future space station supply contracts on Tuesday - answering at least one question about 2008's winners and losers. (SpaceX and Orbital turned out to be the $3.5 billion winners. Planetspace and its partners, including ATK, Boeing and Lockheed Martin, were the losers. See the update below for a few more details on the breakdown.)

However, if the new players in the space game are going to succeed, they can't rely exclusively on NASA contracts. Several of the most innovative players are banking on an entirely different market: passengers who are willing to pay their own fare to get a taste of outer space.

Three of the leading players are Virgin Galactic, XCOR Aerospace and a joint venture involving the Rocket Racing League and Armadillo Aerospace. All three had achievements to celebrate this year, and have challenges to face next year:

  • Virgin Galactic and Scaled Composites rolled out White Knight Two, the twin-fuselage mothership that eventually will carry up their SpaceShipTwo passenger rocket ship for a midflight launch to the edge of space. On Sunday, White Knight Two had its first flight. Next year will be a big one for the joint venture, which is backed by Virgin billionaire Richard Branson and draws upon the genius of Scaled Composites' Burt Rutan: We should see SpaceShipTwo itself go through its rollout and testing at California's Mojave Air and Space Port.
  • The rocketeers at Texas-based Armadillo Aerospace won $350,000 of NASA's money in the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge, and forged deals with the Rocket Racing League to outfit rocket-powered aerobatic racing planes as well as to develop vertical-launch suborbital spaceships. Flight tests are due to begin next year.
  • XCOR Aerospace, headquartered just down the street from Scaled Composites in Mojave, revealed its plans for a two-seater rocket plane that would give adventure-seekers the feelings and vistas of spaceflight. The Lynx Mark I might not quite make it to the 100-kilometer height that marks the start of outer space, but the price for a seat is lower: $95,000 vs. $200,000 for a Virgin Galactic ride. Last week, XCOR successfully test-fired the Lynx's engine, and flight tests are set for 2010.

If these initial ventures can build up a good record for safety, reliability and profitability, there's no question that the flow of investment will go up - and the price will come down. Will 2009 be the year when we actually see the spaceships that will give us our future ride? Stuart Witt, general manager of the Mojave Air and Space Port, is optimistic. In an e-mail sent out just after White Knight Two's successful flight, he hailed the "dawn of a new era" of flight:

"What NASA deserted in the 1960s-2008 is simply a portion of the space sandbox left open for us to fill. New risk in this industry is being taken by people like Elon Musk at SpaceX, Jeff Greason at XCOR, John Carmack of Armadillo and Burt Rutan at Scaled. Innovation is being achieved not because they have only successes, but because they have failure on their side. Ask Elon, John or Burt about failures in the past two years. Then ask them about what they learned.

"As America focuses on bailing out everyone who is on the brink of failure, thank God we have places where failure is still an option in order for innovation to be realized.  When you strip away a country's or individual's right to fail, you take away their ability to succeed. Let the natural forces of accountability work for all. 

"Each morning I'm elated to make the journey to be with a collection of humans who seek to make a long-term difference and are willing to 'try,' regardless of the outcome."

Bottom line: Space entrepreneurs, like the Chicago Cubs, are always talking about "next year" (if not "the year after next year"). At the end of this year, it looks as if "next year" is finally on the way.

Celebration time for space scientists
When you look beyond Earth's orbit, the biggest space mission of the year would have to be the Phoenix Mars Lander: In May, Phoenix became the first spacecraft to make a successful "soft landing" on the Red Planet in more than 30 years. (Mars Pathfinder and NASA's twin Mars rovers did it the "hard" way, using airbags.)

Phoenix found specimens of that water (in the form of ice) literally beneath its feet. For decades, scientists knew that Mars held reservoirs of water ice, particularly in the north polar region where Phoenix landed. But no other probe had the opportunity to reach out and touch it ... and test it. The probe analyzed Martian soil to confirm the presence of water, as well as other chemicals hinting that the soil was once wet.

"Some of these things had been predicted, but a prediction isn't worth anything if it's not checked," the University of Arizona's Peter Smith, principal investigator for the Phoenix mission, told me last week.

Phoenix also detected the presence of perchlorate, a rocket-fuel ingredient that can be used as food by extremophiles on Earth. Scientists went round and round over whether having perchlorate raised or lowered the chances for life on Mars, and Smith sounded as if he sided with the optimists.

"It's better than no energy source, let me put it that way," he said.

Smith said the current models for long-term climate change on Mars can't explain the results that Phoenix sent back. For now, his favorite hypothesis is that the Red Planet had a dramatically different inclination in ancient times - a tilt that exposed the polar ice caps to greater solar exposure and released water "at a tremendous rate."

That mystery, as well as many others about Mars' past, will have to wait for future missions. The launch of NASA's next Red Planet probe, the Mars Science Laboratory, had to be delayed until 2011 due to schedule pressures - and some experts have voiced concerns about the mission's ballooning cost.

Smith would prefer to see more low-cost space missions like Phoenix. "We could do four of 'em, or five of 'em, for the cost of MSL," he said.

Phoenix wasn't the only scientific game in town: India successfully sent out its first lunar probe. NASA's Messenger probe sent back pictures from its second flyby of Mercury. The Cassini spacecraft ended its primary mission in Saturnian orbit and won a two-year extension. The Hubble Space Telescope sent back still more marvels, despite a worrisome hiccup. And for the first time ever, high-powered telescopes actually spotted planets circling distant stars.

There was so much going on during 2008, and there's so much coming up for 2009, that I'll need your help to pick the top story of this year and the top trend for next year. Here's a quick list of the choices. You can probably figure out which ones are my favorites, but I'm not the ultimate judge ... you are.

Top story of 2008:

Top trend for 2009:

Study up on the choices, then cast your vote by clicking on the link below.

VOTE HERE FOR TOP STORY AND TOP TREND

For another take on this year's space milestones, check out NASA's top 10 stories of 2008.

Feel free to cast an alternate write-in vote, or explain your preference at length (but not too much at length) in the comment section below. I'll update this item on Jan. 2 with the results.

Update for 4:15 p.m. Dec. 23: NASA has selected SpaceX and Orbital as vendors for resupplying the international space station after the shuttle fleet's retirement in 2010. SpaceX is expected to provide 12 flights at a cost of $1.6 billion, while Orbital is being allotted eight flights with a price tag of $1.9 billion, said Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA's associate administrator for space operations. That makes a total of $3.5 billion for the 2009-2016 contract period.

Update for 2:35 p.m. Jan. 1, 2009: When the New Mexico Spaceport Authority announced in December that it had received its federal license for suborbital space launches from Spaceport America, it said Virgin Galactic was expected to sign a binding lease agreement for using the spaceport by the end of the month.

The announcement of the signing came in just under the wire, on New Year's Eve.

"The signing of this agreement is a momentous day for our state and has cemented New Mexico as the home of commercial space travel," New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson said in Wednesday's announcement. "I want to thank Virgin Galactic for partnering with us to create a whole new industry that is going to transform the economy of Southern New Mexico - creating thousands of jobs, generating money for education, boosting tourism and attracting other companies and economic opportunities to the area."

Virgin Galactic's projects and operations director, Jonathan Firth, was similarly upbeat about New Mexico: "The state has all the right elements for a successful commercial space operation including weather, clear airspace, beautiful scenery, great people and a fantastic location and design for Spaceport America."

Richardson has been tapped to become President-elect Barack Obama's commerce secretary, so it will be up to other state officials to follow through on the 20-year lease. The $198 million construction project is due to begin early this year, with the terminal and hangar facility scheduled for completion in late 2010.

In Space.com's report on the lease agreement, the spaceport's executive director, Steven Landeene, estimates that Virgin Galactic's rental payments for the terminal and other facilities will amount to about $50 million over the 20-year term. When user fees are factored in, "we're looking at probably $100 million to $200 million dollars in revenue for the state over the 20 year lease ... so $150 million to $250 million dollars of revenue for the state," Landeene told Space.com.

As long as we're updating this year-ender, I might as well announce the top finishers in our 2008-2009 vote:

  • Top story of 2008: Planets spotted around alien stars. Your vote gave the top position to the first sightings of extrasolar planets. For years, such planets have been detected by their gravitational effects on the stars they circle, or even by the slight dimming of stars as the planets pass over their disks. In 2008, the first visual evidence came to light. The biggest fuss was made over the specks sighted around the stars Fomalhaut and HR 8799 - but a later report, relating to the star Beta Pictoris, could point the way to the future frontier. Beta Pic's putative planet was spotted about as far away from its parent star as Saturn's orbit around our own. Things could get really interesting when scientists start seeing alien planets that lie in "habitable zones" where life as we know it could take root. 
  • Top trend for 2009: Transition time at NASA. Who will be in charge at the space agency for the Obama administration? The current administrator, Mike Griffin, reportedly has been making his pitch to stay on, at least for a while, and among his supporters you can count his wife. But it's not yet clear how closely Obama will stick to the plan Griffin has crafted to retire the shuttle fleet and develop a new space system for returning to the moon. A few days ago, The New York Times' John Schwartz provided his take on the road ahead, and your vote serves as another reminder that we should be watching this story particularly closely.