December 29, 2012
Looking Back At Space Industry In 2012 Means Looking Ahead
Lee Rannals for redOrbit.com — Your Universe Online
2012 has been an historical year in the space industry, and the beauty of this past year is it is just paving the way for the best that is yet to come.
Last year, we ended the year on a bit of a sour note, but with hopeful dreams the United States would soon be back at its former glory. We saw a space shuttle program ended after 30 years, and a hopeful future, but no tangible evidence the future was as bright as one would hope.
This year, however, we have seen that tangible future come into play, along with the space agency with the household name making a full comeback in the media spotlight.
During 2012, NASA accomplished a feat no other space agency has ever accomplished with its successful landing of the Mars Curiosity mission. I witnessed NASA engineers at Jet Propulsion Laboratory complete a task so unreal I had to pinch myself to ensure it wasn't in a science fiction movie playing out before my hallucinogenic eyes.
NASA took the most complex rover ever dreamed-up and sent it over 300 million miles to our neighboring planet on a mission to look into the past for the presence of extraterrestrial life. In order to accomplish this mission, Curiosity had to be equipped with such complicated scientific instruments a new way of landing a rover on Mars had to be invented in order to ensure the safety of the multi-million dollar equipment.
JPL engineers went with a wild-hair idea to go ahead and send Curiosity down towards the Martian surface via a "Sky Crane" technique, which was essentially a hovering elevator capable of helping to bring the rover from a 20,000 mph velocity to nearly 0 in a matter of seven minutes. The adventure became known as the "seven minutes of terror."
Not only did NASA find success in its crazy idea, but also the space agency saw itself spreading inspiration across America for different types of entrepreneurship in the space industry.
Since the space shuttle retirement, U.S. commercial companies have been working on ideas to try and relieve America's dependence on Russia for rides to the International Space Station, as well as furthering ourselves as a dominant member of the space community.
In doing that, the U.S. has accomplished a task no other country has ever done, by having SpaceX, during a resupply mission, become the first private company to ever dock with the International Space Station.
SpaceX created its Dragon capsule with a couple of purposes in mind. The first was being able to help resupply astronauts on the ISS, and the second being the ability to send astronauts to orbit and fulfill a void left by the cancellation space shuttle program.
The Elon Musk founded company saw its first steps become reality earlier this year as its Dragon capsule docked with the ISS during the first of 12 NASA contracted resupply missions to the orbiting laboratory.
For the next few years, not only can we wait for NASA to lay out some ambitious plans to reach an asteroid and maybe Mars with human feet, but we will also be seeing U.S. companies become more dominant players in the space industry. We can look forward to new endeavors from visionaries such as Musk, who wish to eventually establish a thriving space tourism industry. But until that day comes, we can always remember 2012 as a milestone; not only for human exploration, but as a stepping stone into the future of the U.S. space industry.