State plays key role for big year in space

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifts off Nov. 15 from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center carrying the company’s Crew Dragon Resilience capsule.

The space industry promises another year of scientific innovation and launch activity in 2021. Florida, home to Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, will continue serving as a key base for it all. Following 2020’s two historic crewed SpaceX launches, the private spaceflight company has another two launches scheduled for 2021, with the first likely in the spring. And Boeing is conducting tests of its Starliner capsule in preparation for its first crewed launch, expected this summer. NASA is getting ready to launch its new deep-space rocket and spacecraft, the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion, for an uncrewed test flight. SLS and Orion were built to eventually return astronauts to the moon and land astronauts on Mars.

A $23.3 billion budget was approved for NASA in the COVID-19 relief and omnibus spending bill approved by Congress and signed by President Donald Trump in December. That tally is $642 million above the previous fiscal year, with much of the spending increase due to planned activities related to future human crewed missions to the moon and Mars.

The February landing of NASA’s Perseverance Rover on Jezero Crater in Mars and the October launch of the James Webb Space Telescope also are highly anticipated for expanding the study of space.

Private Spaceflight Expands

NASA expects one more human-crewed mission from Kennedy Space Center than it had in the previous year.

SpaceX is looking to launch the first of two crewed missions for the year, Crew-2, sometime in the spring. The second, Crew-3, is likely in the fall.

Meanwhile, Boeing is testing its CST-100 Starliner spacecraft for its first crewed mission. An uncrewed launch of Starliner aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket is scheduled for March 29, according to NASA.

The crewed launch is scheduled for “no earlier than June,” according to NASA.

Having two private spaceflight companies sending astronauts to the International Space Station is a big deal, said Kyle Herring, a spokesman for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.

“It’s designed to help these companies help us and help themselves,” said Herring, of the Village of Chitty Chatty. “The whole commercial spaceflight industry is starting to boom. There’s a lot of companies, not only SpaceX and Boeing, that are looking to get into this.”

By helping NASA, the commercial companies provides it with rockets and spacecraft for less money than it would cost for the government to do it itself, he said.

Outside of human-crewed launches, SpaceX is working on launching more satellites into space for its Starlink satellite internet service.

And United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin, plans the first launch of its Vulcan rocket near the end of 2021.

Expanding space exploration and studies

February will mark the arrival of Perseverance on Mars, which would become the fifth of NASA’s rovers to reach the red planet.

It won’t come alone. The United Arab Emirates and China also will land rovers on Mars in February.

“Three ships from Earth will be arriving at Mars, which is really impressive,” said Dale Ketcham, vice president of government and external relations with Space Florida. “Just conceptually, it’s pretty interesting.”

Perseverance, which launched July 2020 from Kennedy Space Center Launch Complex 41, will search Mars for ancient signs of life.

As part of its mission, one of the rover’s tasks will be releasing a space helicopter called Ingenuity, which will attempt to demonstrate flight in Mars’ atmosphere. Ingenuity, according to NASA, features four carbon-fiber blades arranged into two rotors that spin in opposite directions at around 2,400 rpm, faster than an Earth helicopter.

Other projects NASA has planned for 2021 include the launch of the Double Asteroid Redirection Test, for which a spacecraft will test planetary defense by crashing into an asteroid moon in fall 2022 to change its motion.

NASA also plans to launch “Lucy,” its first mission to study ancient material that formed the outer planets; and prepare for the first flight of a supersonic X-plane that will give researchers more information on faster long-distance travel throughout the world.

Webb Telescope May Finally Launch

After several delays, the high-tech successor to the Hubble Space Telescope may finally launch in 2021.

The James Webb Space Telescope, which will be positioned 1 million miles from Earth, will detect older and farther-away light in the universe using infrared imaging.

It’s scheduled to launch Oct. 31 from French Guiana, according to NASA.

It was designed as the scientific successor to the 30-year-old Hubble Space Telescope, an instrument that “captured humanity’s imaginations and deepened our knowledge of the cosmos,” according to NASA. The agency considers it the most significant advancement in astronomy since Galileo’s telescopes.

David Shuckstes, of the Village Mira Mesa, served as the telescope’s project manager from 2002-04 through one of NASA’s space technology contractors, Northrop Grumman in Redondo Beach, California.

First Steps Toward Moon, Mars Missions

One of the projects that most excites Ketcham and Herring is the uncrewed test launch of NASA’s Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft, both of which will be used for deep-space exploration.

That’s not limited to, but including, future missions to the moon in 2024 and to Mars in the 2030s.

The rocket and spacecraft are expected to arrive this year in Florida from Stennis Space Center in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, where system tests are taking place.

Its eighth and final test of core engines, known as the hot fire test, will begin as early as Sunday, NASA announced Jan. 5.

Both Ketcham and Herring expect the test launch of SLS and Orion will happen sometime in 2021.

“If the test (in Mississippi) goes well, they’re going to ship the first core stage of that rocket, which will be the biggest thing ever flown,” Ketcham said.

The ongoing developments in NASA missions and private spaceflight aim to establish Florida as “the most successful launch site on the planet,” he said.

“It helps to beef up Florida’s credentials and industrial heft in growing and positioning the state as a dominant location for the growing industry of more and more human activity in space,” Ketcham said. “It’s usually high-paying work. It’s the kind of thing that attracts high-skilled millennial talent. And it inspires kids to get into science.”

Senior writer Michael Salerno can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5369, or michael.salerno@thevillagesmedia.com.