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Space and what’s coming next

Regardless of what is happening in the White House (WH), space exploration in 2017 will see major milestones across the planet. On the other hand, what the WH decides, especially what Mike Pence (the titular head of the space program) decides for NASA’s future and the space adventuring partners out there, will have great impact on U.S. exploration and technological superiority in space for decades to come. Projects take years to set up and develop and, if curtailed, are likely to become obsolete quickly.

Jeff Bezos owns a company called Blue Origin. Elon Musk owns a company called SpaceX. Neither were supporters of the incumbent. People in the WH like Steve Bannon are likely reminding the incumbent that neither of these two trailblazers should be empowered further. It is, in Bannon’s own words, payback time.

On the other hand, start-up space entrepreneur Robert Bigelow (of Bigalow Aerospace of Las Vegas) has hardly gotten off the ground with his plans but has already gotten into positive tweeting with the incumbent. Bigalow has, however, made advances in space habitat with inflatable structures. But that’s about all.

Sierra Nevada Corp. is owned and run by Fatih Ozmen, CEO, and her husband, Eren Ozmen, President. They are using an old NASA design for a lifting body (mini-shuttle) to bid for and get tax payers’ funding for development. The couple are very politically well-connected to the very-right wing in D.C. and are likely not to have any hiccups in their funding. Whether they can make any contribution to space travel remains to be seen.

Virgin Galactic is, on the other hand, already proven to get man into space, and within the next year they may make that first commercial passenger flight. However, the real Virgin Galactic and Scaled Composites (owned by Lockheed a major untouchable defense contractor) are developing rocket launch capabilities from high-altitude flight and, of course, will be bidding for space resupply to the space station as well. But Branson is hardly a WH buddy.

Bezos’ Blue Origin will make a manned spaceflight sometime soon, likely early next year, about the same time SpaceShipTwo from Virgin Galactic returns to flight. 

Musk’s SpaceX, meanwhile, had a wonderful return to flight for a satellite launch early this year, with the booster landing on a barge at sea to be reused. SpaceX is ambitious, with plans for six flights within the next two months. And they have a heavy lifter called SpaceX Falcon Heavy which will have a test flight in about six months. The Air Force has already hired SpaceX and their heavy lifter for a military launch later this year. Rumors have it that the Air Force may be pressured to shift away from Elon Musk’s company to Boeing, with no appreciable reason given so far.

NASA is not sitting on its hands. It has old shuttle engines they want to cobble together later this year and fire up on the old Saturn 5 pad in Florida. Why something so big? NASA has a return to the moon (well, not landing) scheduled for 2018. They need this to try and stay ahead of the Indians and Chinese, who have lunar missions planned as well.

NASA’s budget is still the largest globally that we know of, but that may be trimmed, as the WH does not like science from NASA getting in the way of reducing EPA and other regulatory control. Science for defense is OK; science for the planet seems to be out of favor. While the WH dickers with our national space exploration priorities (note: not defense priorities, which will get a boost), the rest of the world is not waiting for NASA’s lead, given WH statements. Already, some of our space allies are probing other countries’ capabilities for their space exploration needs.

India will have a geostationary launch this year after a steady 15-year development. And, to avoid buying engines from Russia, they are using their own engines, too! 

Japan has satellite launches all the time but mainly piggybacks space exploration on NASA — but WH comments on the imbalance of trade are causing worries there too. 

But the elephants in the room remain Russia and China. Their budgets may be as large as NASA’s, but that is hard to tell in their world of nonaccountability.

Russia continues to be the only way for our astronauts to get into space. And their leverage and capability with engines makes NASA beholden to their cooperation. It has already been signaled by the WH that NASA should cut back on our crew launch development, as Russia seems a reliable space partner. No surprise there.

China does not agree to share with anyone. April will see the launch of the Long March 7 carrying a Tianzhou 1 cargo carrier autonomously to the Tiangong 2. What’s that? A so-called mini-space station that keeps getting bits bolted on and gets bigger every year. By 2022, it will rival our space station, because the Chinese have achieved something Russia never did — the ability to deliver both pressurized and non-pressurized supplies and fuel to the orbiting outpost.

And here’s why all this is important to you: Every facet of modern life came as a result of the trickle down of technology developed for space exploration. If we lose our will to be at that vanguard, so goes the nation, regardless of tariffs, political geoposturing and vendettas.

 

Peter Riva, a former resident of Amenia Union, now lives in New Mexico.