SPACE FLIGHT: FROM THE ASHES
Human exploration of space started in 2003 with a tragedy. On February 1, the US Space Shuttle Columbia broke up during the atmospheric reentry at the end of a science mission. The accident took lives of seven astronauts and essentially grounded the US manned space program. It also left Russia as a sole safe keeper of the International Space Station, ISS. Luckily for the ISS project, the Columbia tragedy coincided with the booming oil prices, which afforded the Russian government to give a long awaited financial shot in the arm to the countrys space agency. However, Russian space officials complained that any surplus in funding had been essentially eaten up by the need to boost the flow of supplies to the station to sustain its two-man crew during the year. As a result, decade-long hopes to jump-start the construction of the Russian segment of the ISS were dashed one more time.
And yet, for the Russian-American cooperation in space, the Columbia tragedy did provide a silver lining of sorts. A loud chorus of "experts" who in previous years spent sea of ink criticizing NASA for letting Russians in the "critical path" in the space station program had to finally quiet down. Without the Shuttle, the irreplaceable capability of the Russian spacecraft suddenly became clear even to the most avid opponents of the Russian-American cooperation.
At the same time, a debate about goals of manned space flight and its value for the humanity rekindled again on both sides of the Atlantic. In the months following the loss of Columbia, the American press was filled with editorials charging NASA with the "lack of vision" and "broken culture" of safety. Although many of such generalized allegations were so vague and unsubstantiated that it was almost impossible to answer, yet it was clear that, if anything, NASA clearly experienced a "major malfunction" in its public relations mission.
Space Race with China?
To add even more contrast to the picture of NASA in crisis, China launched its first man in space, nine months after the Columbia accident. On October 15, 2003, Shenzhou-5 spacecraft, with a 38-year-old Lt. Colonel Yang Liwei onboard entered orbit after apparently flawless launch from the launch pad in the Gobi Desert. After a day in space, the first Chinese astronaut returned safely to Earth to face fanfare of the official media.
Along with considerable amount of Russian technology, the Chinese manned space program adopted a great deal of the Soviet-style secrecy, letting analysts in the West to run amok in speculating possible scenarios for the Chinese future in space.
Despite less than enthusiastic reaction by the Western media, and all but total ignorance of the American public about the Chinese feat in space, some US analysts went on record, predicting a "new space race" with China. One "expert" was careless enough to promise Chinese manned expedition to the Moon within less than five years and a respectable US newspaper went ahead printing such "analysis." Skeptics, however, reminded about rather slow pace of the Chinese space program and about the lack of real challenge to the American political and economic dominance in the world to spark any really active competition in space.
New space initiative?
Perhaps, as a reaction to the "lack of vision" allegations and to the Chinese success, in November 2003, rumors surfaced on the Internet about some mysterious space initiative reportedly being ironed out in the White House and aimed to give NASA a new bold mission. Since George W. Bush administration almost rivaled Brezhnev's government in its obsession with secrecy, little could be discerned about the new proposal. Observers speculated about plans to return to the Moon or even about renewed efforts to send humans to Mars. However many longtime observers of the space program could not resist comparing the alleged new plan with another stillborn plan from the more than decade ago. In 1989, George Bush the elder proposed so-called Space Exploration Initiative, SEI, which would culminate with a manned expedition to Mars. In the post-Cold War climate, the plan found few backers outside of the aerospace industry.
In 2003, as in 1988, the United States faced record-high budget deficit, complemented with financial pressures of the global war on terror. Skeptics pointed out that in the absence of the active challenge to the American technological and political dominance in the world a large space program would promise few political dividends, without which it would be doomed to failure.
Weeks after space buffs around the world had discussed the possible US space initiative in the online forums, the mainstream American media "discovered" the story. Suddenly, questions about space policy popped up during press briefings in the White House. That was perhaps, the first time in many years, when space exploration was discussed at such level, not counting a short-lived hysteria in the days following the Columbia tragedy. In response to reporters' inquiries, a White House spokesman asked not to expect any major announcements on space in the immediate future.
However even rumors about possible return to the Moon was enough for some activists and journalists to start a campaign against any significant increase in space funding. Therefore, if the US government wanted to test waters on the popularity of space program among the American public by leaking rumors about the plan, it certainly got the idea in the last weeks of 2003. Symbolically, during the centennial of flight celebration in December 2003, when George W. Bushs speech on the future in space was expected but had never taken place, an attempt had been made to recreate a historic flight of Wright brothers. On December 17, after a shaky attempt to hop into the air, a flimsy replica of the flyer landed in the pool of December mud.
Orbital Space Plane: wings versus capsules
Along with political and public relations battles, NASA faced another fallout from the Columbia accident. With the Space Shuttle system in its third decade of operation and with only three orbiters remaining, a fateful decision had to be made on the replacement program. Amazingly, after more than two decades of flying the Shuttle, NASA was back at the drawing board, choosing between the concepts, which reminded engineering studies from the 1960s and 1970s. Once dominant space plane concepts now competed with old-fashioned Apollo-style capsules and wingless lifting bodies. However no matter what the final choice would be, the future spacecraft would provide only shadow of the awesome size and power of the Space Shuttle. In fact, the Shuttles capability to carry cargo and people in a single vehicle was now viewed as its biggest design flaw. In this light, Russias involuntary decision at the beginning of the 1990s to abandon its reusable Buran program and stick with tiny Soyuz capsules now looked not only economical but also technically justified. As once Hindenburg explosion spelled the end of era for hydrogen-filled zeppelins, the fiery death of Columbia in 2003 doomed any prospects for the development of the large winged orbiters in the foreseeable future.
PLANETARY RESEARCH: YEAR OF MARS
In August 2003, the planet Mars shined in the Earth sky as bright as it did last time in the Neanderthal era some 60,000 years ago. While then early humans could only gaze at the reddish star in the sky, this time earthlings launched an armada of robots to the Red Planet. Along with two US rovers, European and Japanese space agencies targeted Mars with unmanned probes. Although Russia used its Soyuz/Fregat booster to lift European Mars Express -- the first planetary launch from Baikonur since 1996 -- the nation's planetary scientists could only envy their colleagues abroad. The Russia's own mission to explore Mars and return soil samples from its Moon Phobos was essentially abandoned on the drawing board in favor of a less ambitious project. Its exact goals, time frame and very possibility for implementation were yet to be determined.
Another blow to the Russian planetary science was dealt by the European Space Agency, ESA, in the fall of 2003, when its budget constraints forced the agency to slash the Russian lander from the Bepi Colombo mission aimed to explore Mercury. Without monetary compensation from Europe, Russia would not able to fund the lander on its own.
As a small consolation, in June 2003 ESA officially decided to launch its Venus Express mission onboard the Russian Soyuz-Fregat launcher, following successful departure of the Mars Express spacecraft onboard the same rocket.
While Martian probes launched in 2003 would spend most of the year in transit, previous NASA probes continued gathering rich scientific harvets from the orbit around the planet, helping scientists to write geological history of the Red Planet. In November 2003, NASA released images from Mars Global Surveyor, which showed what looked like deltas of ancient rivers. Believers in Martian rivers argued that images prove long-term presence of water on the surface of the planet.
In the meantime, the incoming flotilla of Martian probes sufferred its losses. First, Japanese space agency had no choice but to give up its years-long mission to the Red Planet, as it had became clear that ground controllers were unable to fire main propulsion system onboard the Nozomi spacecraft, in order to insert it into orbit around the planet. Few weeks later, the European Mars Express orbiter successfully entered orbit around Mars, however nothing was heard from the Beagle 2 lander, which Mars Express had ejected few days before.
Possibly, the biggest success for planetary science in 2003 took place on the ground. During the year, NASA made some significant progress in developing technology for future nuclear-powered/ion-propelled missions.
Russian secret military space program also saw major disappointments this year. A string of on-orbit failures left two crucial military satellites dead in space and a head of a major space center sacked in the wake of the failure. In August 2003, Yuri Koptev, the Director General of the Russian Aviation and Space Agency fired Stanislav Kulikov, the head of NPO Lavochkin. The company developed Araks observation satellite and Oko early-warning spacecraft, which both failed prematurely in 2003.
To worsen the situation even further, in November 2003, Russian Space Forces had some explaining to do regarding yet another apparent failure in orbit. When US radar detected multiple debris accompanying a Russian spy satellite, independent analysts assumed the spacecraft broke up in orbit. However a day later, Russian military denied any problems with the craft, while a rather bizarre explanation for the debris sighting has surfaced in the Russian press. Apparently, one of the satellites reentry capsules accidentally released its film into orbit, generating multiple signatures on the radar and inspiring some jokes on the online forums. The satellite itself was routinely blown up by the ground controllers near the end of its mission.
Despite failures in orbit, during the year, Russia managed to upgrade some of its space defense assets, such as tracking stations and early-warning radar.
During 2003, the development of rocket technology was marked by a tragedy in Brazil, when on August 23, the countrys VLS-1 launch vehicle exploded at the Equatorial launch pad in Alcantara. As many as 21 people died in the accident, which took place only a day before Brazils scheduled third attempt to launch a small satellite into orbit. Two previous orbital launch attempts failed in flight.
Russia is known to supply avionics systems for the VLS-1 program, which is apparently delivered as sealed modules, supposedly to maintain nonproliferation regime.
Half a world away, United States, Russia and European Union each worked on the introduction of the new families of heavy space boosters. The US Lockheed Martin kept early lead, introducing new bigger version from its Atlas V family of boosters, all powered by the Russian RD-180 engine on the first stage. Boeing followed with the test flight of the Delta IV rocket. Both families sport modular design, enabling different configurations, including future heavy-lift versions, which would replace vintage Titan vehicles.
Russias Khrunichev enterprise adopted similar modular concept for its Angara rocket, however financial problems kept the program years behind schedule. During 2003, the Russian government officials reiterated their commitment to the program and promised to fund long-delayed construction of the launch pad for the Angara in Plesetsk. Along with the launch pad, the Angara facilities in Plesetsk were to feature a landing strip for reusable winged Baikal booster, which could be used as a first stage for the Angara. During the year, Russian media reported the commencements of work on a special extension in Plesetsk airport, which would enable it to receive a reusable Baikal stage.
In the meantime, Russias operational space boosters performed flawlessly during the year, with all orbital launch attempts reaching their destinations. A new version of the space launcher based on the UR-100NU ICBM completed an apparently successful maiden flight under name Strela.
Total 24 Russian or Ukrainian space boosters blasted off from Baikonur, Plesetsk and the ocean-going platform during 2003. All of them successfully delivered their payloads into orbit.
Milestones in rocketry and space exploration in 2003:
January: In the wake of the Ariane-5 rocket failure in December 2002, European Space Agency, ESA, decides to cancel launch of the Rosetta mission scheduled for January 12, 2003.
February 1: The US Space Shuttle Columbia breaks up during the atmospheric reentry at the end of a science mission.
March: In Netherlands, partners in the International Space Station discuss the future of the program.
March 27: Russian military conducts a training launch of the Topol intercontinental ballistic missile (RS-12M).
April 29: Almost exactly seven years after its launch, the Italian BeppoSAX astronomy satellite reenters the earth atmosphere over the Pacific Ocean.
May 4: The sixth long-term crew of the International Space Station, ISS, returns safely to Earth, despite off-target landing. The reentry capsule of the Soyuz TMA-1 spacecraft touched down some 460 kilometers short of its intended landing zone.
May 5: During negotiations in Moscow, Koptev and OKeefe reportedly agreed to resume cooperation in the unmanned exploration of Mars.
May 15: Russian strategic bombers conducted test launches of the long-range cruise missiles over the Indian Ocean.
May 16: NASA announces it selected 15 industry, government and academic organizations to pursue 22 innovative propulsion technology research proposals that could revolutionize exploration and scientific study of the solar system. The research is to be conducted in five, in-space propulsion technology areas: aerocapture; advanced chemical propulsion; solar electric propulsion; space-based tether propulsion; and solar sail technologies. Each technology identified for development was part of the In-Space Propulsion (ISP) Program, managed in the Office of Space Sciences, NASA Headquarters.
June 10: NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory has awards a Lockheed Martin team one of three $6 million concept design study contracts for the Jupiter Icy Moons Orbiter (JIMO). JIMO would be the first outer planet mission to fly under NASA's Project Prometheus Program.
July 7: Iran conducts a test launch of the Shahab-3 missile.
The International Launch Services, ILS, based in Mclean, Va., announced
that NASA had chosen the Lockheed Martin's Atlas V rocket, to launch the
Pluto New Horizons mission in January 2006. The mission is to conduct
scientific reconnaissance of Pluto
July 24: The Air Force announced today that it has determined that The Boeing Company has committed serious violations of federal law based on its review into allegations of wrongdoing by Boeing during the 1998 Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) source selection. As one of the punishments, the Air Force reduced the total number of Boeing Delta IV launches within Buy I agreement from 19 to 12. At the same time, the Air Force increased the total number of Lockheed Martin Buy I Atlas V launches from 7 to 14.
July 29: In California, partners in the International Space Station discuss the future of the program.
Aug. 1: Russia and Kazakhstan finalize agreement on a 50-year lease of Baikonur Cosmodrome. According to Rosaviacosmos, for the first time Kazakhstan offered funding of infrastructure at Baikonur for the Angara launch vehicle, replacing Proton.
Aug. 4: NASA announced that it has selected the University of Arizona "Phoenix" mission for launch in 2007 as what is hoped will be the first in a new line of smaller competing "Scout" missions in the agency's Mars Exploration Program. In May 2008, two US missions to Mars will deploy a lander to the water-ice-rich northern polar region, dig with a robotic arm into arctic terrain for clues on the history of water, and search for environments suitable for microbes.
Aug. 5: Malaysia will send its first astronaut into space on a Russian mission in 2005, Defense Minister Najib Razak said. The trip would be part of a technology transfer deal tied in with Malaysia's 900-million-dollar purchase of 18 Russian Sukhoi fighter jets reached during an official visit here by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Aug. 6: According to sources in Russia, the Araks-2 spacecraft, launched in 2002, failed on August 5 or 6, leading to the firing of the head of NPO Lavochkin.
Aug. 22: A Brazilian lightweight VLS-1 launch vehicle, scheduled for launch on Aug. 25 with a small satellite, exploded on the launch pad killing 21 people.
Aug. 26: Admiral Hal Gehman, who led Columbia Accident Investigation Board, CAIB, delivered the final report of the commission to NASA.
Aug. 29: In Beijing, Chinese and Russian officials discuss cooperation in space.
Sept. 10: NASA announces the selection of a beryllium-based mirror technology for the 6.5-meter primary mirror of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), a major milestone in the development of the spacecraft.
16: China announces a suborbital test launch of the KT-1 rocket, however
official statements indicated that the mission did not go as planned.
Sept. 21: NASA's Galileo spacecraft completes its mission around Jupiter by plunging into the giant planet's atmosphere to avoid possible contamination of Jovian satellites.
Sept. 28: SMART-1, Europe's first lunar mission launched a day earlier by the Ariane-5, officially started with the deployment of the spacecraft's solar panels.
Oct. 15: China launches its first man in space.
Nov. 3: Boeing announces it has established an integrated Orbital Space Program office, headquartered in Huntsville, Ala. The office was expected to work on the reusable crew rescue vehicle for the International Space Station and the replacement for the Space Shuttle.
Dec. 12: NASA successfully tests a new ion propulsion engine design, one of several candidate propulsion technologies under study by NASA's Project Prometheus for possible use on the proposed Jupiter Icy Moons Orbiter mission.
Dec. 18: MASA releases first images from Spitzer Space Telescope, formerly known as the Space Infrared Telescope Facility, which was launched in August 2003.
Dec. 19: ESA's Mars Express orbiter released the Beagle 2 lander during its approach to Mars.
Dec. 25: ESA's Mars Express orbiter successfully entered orbit around Mars, however no signals had been recieved from the Beagle 2 lander, which was suppose to reach the surface of the Red Planet on the same day.
On February 2, 2003, practically every American newspaper carried a cover story about the Columbia tragedy. Click to enlarge: 400 by 334 pixels / 64K Copyright © 2003 by Anatoly Zak
The view of the International Space Station through the camera of the approaching Soyuz TMA-2 spacecraft in April 2003. Credit: RKK Energia
The 7th and 8th long-duration crews plus a European guest astronaut onboard the International Space Station (ISS) in October 2003. From the left (front row) are cosmonaut Yuri I. Malenchenko, Expedition 7 mission commander; European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Pedro Duque of Spain; astronaut C. Michael Foale, Expedition 8 mission commander and NASA ISS science officer. From the left (back row) are astronaut Edward T. Lu, Expedition 7 NASA ISS science officer and flight engineer, and cosmonaut Alexander Y. Kaleri, Expedition 8 flight engineer. Credit: NASA
Mars shines in the August sky as one of the brightest stars, as the small armada of spacecraft is approaching. Click to enlarge: 400 by 333 pixles / 20K. Copyright © 2003 by Anatoly Zak
Pictures from NASA's Mars Global Surveyor orbiter show eroded ancient deposits of transported sediment long since hardened into interweaving, curved ridges of layered rock. Scientists interpret some of the curves as traces of ancient meanders made in a sedimentary fan as flowing water changed its course over time. Such evidence may help settle a decades-long debate about whether the planet had long-lasting rivers instead of just brief, intense floods. Credit: NASA
Orbital launch attempts in 2003:
* UTC unless stated otherwise; ** - Local (?); *** Moscow Time: ****Lost on reentry as a result of the damage during the launch