We say this about every year, but 2013 was memorable in so many ways that I cannot begin to catalog them all. As a result, let me confine my remarks to three accomplishments that I consider the most significant taking place in civil space during this past year. Interestingly, many of these are not NASA, or even American, accomplishments. Although some, of course, are.
First, there is a new rover on the Moon. On December 14 of this year China’s Chang’e 3 spacecraft landed on the Moon, the first soft lunar landing there since 1976. China did so for all of the reasons that the Americans and the Russians landed on the Moon in the 1960s and 1970s and science, while important, was not the primary motivation. The lander deployed the rover Yutu (“Jade Rabbit”) for three months of touring around the lunar surface. Here’s hoping this is a very productive mission.
Second, it has been a big year for commercial spaceflight operations as NASA’s CCDev program is beginning to bare fruit. Both SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket/Dragon capsule and Orbital Sciences’s Antares rocket/Cygnus capsule have now flown resupply missions to the International Space Station.
The release of NASA from flying orbital support missions is a major step forward in the possibility of moving forward with deep space exploration. Not since 1972 has any human being been beyond low-Earth orbit and it appears that no one will go beyond for the foreseeable future. I’m not at all sure this has been a bad thing, for in the years since the conclusion of the Apollo program we have made Earth orbit a human domain usable for a wide range of private sector activities. NASA’s role in Earth orbit, as an exploring organization, should decline in the future. I hope it will be able to raise its sights toward exploring cis- and trans-lunar space, performing the same function there that it has been successful in doing in Earth orbit: incorporating the lunar region into the normal realm of human activity.
Finally, two new spacecraft embarked on missions to Mars in 2013; indeed there has been an armada of spacecraft sent to the Red Planet since the 1990s and the result has been greatly increased understanding. NASA’s MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN) mission, will undertake study of Mars’ atmosphere, especially how it is losing its atmosphere to the solar wind. India’s launch of its first mission to Mars, Mangalyaan, on November 5, 2013, is a major step forward for the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). It should arrive in orbit at the Red Planet in September 2014. I hope both are successful.