Strap In, It’s Going To Be A Big Year For Space News

12:13 minutes

a giant gold disc made up of dozens of gold octagons in a massive hanger clean room with scientists in white protective suits around it
The James Webb telescope, set to launch in 2021. Credit: NASA/Desiree Stover

Many industries were derailed by the pandemic in 2020, but space exploration still accomplished some great things. NASA’s Solar Orbiter was deployed, and brought back the closest pictures ever taken of the Sun. The Mars 2020 Perseverance Rover was sent on its way to the red planet, and SpaceX flew its first successful crewed mission to the International Space Station.

As far as space exploration goes, 2021 is promising to be even more exciting. Lots of interesting missions are on the calendar: There are plans to go to the Moon and to Mars, with lots of countries and companies involved. Then there’s the deployment of the long-awaited James Webb telescope to succeed the Hubble. And it’s possible we might even see civilian spaceflights, for a fee, or course.

Joining Ira to talk about what’s on the docket for space exploration in 2021 is Christian Davenport, staff writer covering the space industry at The Washington Post

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Segment Guests

Christian Davenport

Christian Davenport is a staff writer for The Washington Post in Washington, D.C..

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is “Science Friday.” I’m Ira Flatow. Later in the hour, a conversation with Nobel laureate Dr. Frank Wilczek about the latest big ideas in physics. But first, if you like to follow space exploration, 2021 is promising to be a banner year.

Some exciting missions are on the calendar. We’re going to the moon, Mars. Lots of countries and companies involved. There’s a new successor to the Hubble Space Telescope and maybe even civilian space flights. Yeah. You heard me right on that one. Joining me today to break down what’s planned is Christian Davenport, reporter at “The Washington Post.” He covers the space industry. Welcome to “Science Friday.”

CHRISTIAN DAVENPORT: Thanks for having me.

IRA FLATOW: Christian, let’s dig right into this. A lot of things were derailed last year, but we still saw some great things in terms of space exploration. But it looks like 2021 may even be a better year, right?

CHRISTIAN DAVENPORT: Yeah. I mean you’re right. 2020 was just such a disaster. And space was a bright spot in a year where there were very few. But I think in 2021 that momentum that we’ve seen is only going to continue. As we mentioned, the restoration of human space flight from American soil. We hadn’t seen that since the space shuttle was retired in 2011. That’ll keep going. Private missions with private astronauts possibly, passengers, tourists going to the edge of space and maybe even to orbit, missions to Mars, the James Webb telescope. So all sorts of exciting things on the calendar for 2021.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s get into some of them in detail, because I know one big name that emerged in particular last year was SpaceX. What do we know about their plans for this year?

CHRISTIAN DAVENPORT: So right. So SpaceX flew for the first time human spaceflight missions from the Kennedy Space Center, the Florida space coast, that sort of sacrosanct stretch of real estate in Florida, for the first time in 2020. They’ve already got a couple more missions for NASA on the books for 2021. A crew II mission, which will have four astronauts on board going to the International Space Station. That’s scheduled for sometime in the spring and then another one in the fall. So they’re really hitting their cadence again.

And again, NASA, people forget this, didn’t have the ability to fly astronauts from US soil since the shuttle went away nearly a decade ago. And SpaceX, Elon Musk’s company, has restored that capability almost single handedly, I mean with the help of NASA but now they’re doing it. But SpaceX is looking even beyond low Earth orbit. And they’re trying out this new rocket and spacecraft they call Starship.

And it kind of looks frankly ridiculous. I mean it looks like a grain silo that you’d see on a farm somewhere. But as they have shown, it can fly. And they’ve taken it on these short hops where they send it up 10, 12 miles into the air and then bring it back down. And this is a vehicle that they hope will send people to the moon and to Mars. And NASA has actually invested in it, giving them a contract for more than $100 million. So that’s going.

In addition to all of that, if that weren’t enough, they’re putting up this constellation of satellites, literally not hundreds but thousands of satellites in orbit around the Earth to beam the internet down to these ground stations to help serve areas in rural communities that don’t have access to broadband. And they’ve already got 1,000 of these satellites on orbit. They won last year a contract from the FCC of more than $800 million to help them proceed with this program. So that’s yet another thing that SpaceX is doing in 2021.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Some amateur astronomers are not too happy about that. But that’s a different topic. Let’s move on to Boeing. It contracts with NASA to bring astronauts to the International Space Station. But as we know, there have been a few hiccups with Boeing, right?

CHRISTIAN DAVENPORT: Yeah. So they have the contract along with SpaceX to build and design a spacecraft to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station. When these contracts were awarded in 2014, I think everybody thought that Boeing was going to be the first to fly. They were the big contractor. They have all the heritage and the expertise. And SpaceX was sort of the new kid on the block.

But Boeing has stumbled along the way. I mean they had a test flight at the end of 2019 where their spacecraft, the Starliner, ran into trouble almost as soon as it reached space. This was a test flight without any astronauts on board. It was supposed to go up and dock autonomously with the Space Station. But instead of that happening, they had this software problem which the spacecraft thought it was at an entirely different point in the mission. It was 11 hours off.

And they had to ultimately cut the mission short, bring the spacecraft home within a couple of days. And they spent basically all of last year trying to investigate what went wrong with their software. And now in March, they’re going to redo that test flight, again without any astronauts on board. And if that goes well, which for them it really needs to, NASA will allow them finally to put their astronauts on board.

And in addition to that, they are the prime contractor on NASA’s big moon rocket, the Space Launch system, which has been cost overruns and delays for years and years and years. But it’s finally at the point where NASA is saying we’re getting close to flying this. And this would be the rocket that would take NASA’s astronauts to the moon. But again, Boeing has to prove that they can finally fly this rocket once and for all.

IRA FLATOW: Speaking of cost overruns and delays for years, it’s a good segue into the James Webb telescope. We’ve been talking about the possibility of this going into space for years. But this may be the year it actually gets launched.

CHRISTIAN DAVENPORT: Yeah. I mean actually, people are expressing this confidence that this is the year. In October, it will finally be ready to launch. It’s a $9 billion telescope, a successor to the Hubble telescope to look deep into the cosmos. And this is one that will not be in Earth orbit like Hubble but actually a million miles away from Earth. And you know, it’s going to be a big deal for astronomers. But I think people are confident that this is the year that Webb finally gets into space.

IRA FLATOW: I hope they get a good Wi-Fi connection out there. Let’s talk about there’s really interesting stuff going on with Mars. There’s not one, not two, but three missions to Mars planned for February alone.

CHRISTIAN DAVENPORT: Yeah. And NASA’s sending Mars Perseverance, the rover that will touch down in Jezero Crater looking for traces and signs of life. So that’s really exciting. I mean, any time you land a robot on Mars, it strikes terror into the hearts of our good people at NASA’s JPL. But this time they’ve got not just the rover but this helicopter called Ingenuity. So it’s a Wright brothers moment for powered flight but on the surface of Mars. So that will be really cool too.

IRA FLATOW: And it’s not just the US that’s going there, right? We have the United Arab Emirates.

CHRISTIAN DAVENPORT: Yeah. And so you’ve got a trio of spacecraft that could be landing on the red planet all in February, so setting up a real cadence of trips to Mars, which is you’ve got that window where you can only go to Mars about once every 26 months when Earth and Mars are on the same side of the sun. So we saw some people take real advantage of that.

I mean, speaking for a minute about what we were talking earlier with SpaceX, that’s why Elon Musk founded SpaceX to ultimately get people to Mars. And he is now hoping to send Starship there with people within six years or so. Now Elon also, he always has these grand pronouncements. But it’s interesting to see how Mars is sort of back in the news and back in the headlines again.

IRA FLATOW: You mentioned this at the beginning, something that some people in our audience might like to try, and that is possibly going into space on a civilian space flight this year. Tell me about this.

CHRISTIAN DAVENPORT: So there are actually three opportunities to do that now, which is kind of incredible if you think about it. There’s Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, which for years has been working on a suborbital space plane to take paying customers to the edge of space. Now again, this is suborbital where you go up, shoot straight up, scratch the surface of space some 50 to 60 miles high, and then have five minutes of weightlessness and can see the black sky of space even in the daytime, and the curvature of the Earth, and all that and come back down. But Jeff Bezo’s Blue Origin also wants to do that. They haven’t announced any prices yet, but they hope to start flying people this year as does Virgin Galactic, which is charging $250,000, although that might go up.

But in addition to those suborbital space tourism flights, SpaceX is now working with a company called Axiom Space to train civilians to fly on their dragon spacecraft for trips to the International Space Station. Now that’s much, much more expensive. These are trips for a 10 day stay on the Space Station would cost an estimated $50 million or so. But this is due in part to a change in NASA policy under the leadership of NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine, because NASA prohibited tourists and private citizens going to the International Space Station from US soil. It had been done before.

There have been a handful of private citizens, very wealthy people, who have gone to the Space Station before. But they’ve gone on the Russian Soyuz rocket. So this will be the first time an American company does that from US soil. And you may have seen the news that there are reports that Tom Cruise may go up on a SpaceX rocket through Axiom to film a movie on the International Space Station though I don’t think that’s quite going to happen this year.

IRA FLATOW: The International Space Station might be on its last legs. A while ago, they extended it to 2020. Now the life expectancy is 2024. China is planning to place a space station in low orbit. Could this possibly go into space this year?

CHRISTIAN DAVENPORT: Yeah. I mean so China is moving ahead and has big ambitions in space and is planning their own space station and planned to launch the first segment this year. And it comes at a time when people are wondering about the International Space Station. How much longer can it stay up there? I mean, it’s had humans on there living continuously for, well, now 21 years. And it sprung a leak last year. It’s getting older. Space is harsh.

There are plans. There’s talk in Congress of extending the life of the Space Station to 2028. But you’re hearing people in NASA, and the incoming Biden administration, and the aerospace industry in general start talking about what’s going to come next. And what’s going to come next, at least the current plan, is a commercial habitat.

I mentioned that company Axiom Space before that wants to put together the flight of the private citizens. They also are developing a private space station. And there are a few companies that want to do that. The problem is, though, that Congress hasn’t been funding this. And so there is some real concern that there could be a gap in low Earth orbit. If there’s no space station, there’s no backup, because, effectively, NASA is barred from partnering with China in space. So if they have a space station, it would seem unlikely that NASA’s astronauts would be able to go there.

IRA FLATOW: Well, I see that decision might come back and bite them.

CHRISTIAN DAVENPORT: It could be a real problem. And that’s one of the things people are increasingly concerned about.

IRA FLATOW: Well, we’ll find out what happens. It’ll all be very exciting. We’ll follow it with you, Christian.

CHRISTIAN DAVENPORT: Well, it’s going to be a great year. I tell you, it’s such a fun time to be a space reporter.

IRA FLATOW: Christian Davenport having fun as a reporter at “The Washington Post” covering the space industry. Thank you for taking time to be with us today.

CHRISTIAN DAVENPORT: Oh. Thanks for having me.

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About Kathleen Davis

Kathleen Davis is a producer at Science Friday, which means she spends the week brainstorming, researching, and writing, typically in that order. She’s a big fan of stories related to strange animal facts and dystopian technology.

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Ira Flatow is the host and executive producer of Science FridayHis green thumb has revived many an office plant at death’s door.

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