2007: The year in spaceflight

2019-02-26 11:09:01

By David Shiga 2007 was a mixed year for spaceflight. The Moon became an international commodity, with two new spacecraft arriving in lunar orbit and a multi-million dollar prize announced for landing a privately financed robot on its surface. But the private spaceflight industry also suffered a fatal accident and China tested an anti-satellite weapon, raising questions about the peaceful use of space. In July, tragedy struck the fledgling commercial space industry. An explosion at the California testing facilities operated by commercial spaceflight pioneer Burt Rutan killed three people, temporarily halting work on the suborbital vehicle SpaceShipTwo. A report on the accident by the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health is expected in January 2008. But the industry also enjoyed some successes. Bigelow Aerospace launched its second inflatable spacecraft into Earth orbit for testing and announced accelerated plans to launch a space station fit for human habitation before 2010. It also hinted that it would offer $760 million to any company that could provide a means of transportation to and from its stations. The X Prize Foundation announced a $30 million prize, sponsored by Google, to the first non-governmental entity to land a robot on the Moon. And SpaceX launched its low-cost Falcon 1 rocket on a brief trip into space for the first time, marking progress towards dramatically cheaper launches of satellites, although a premature engine shutdown meant the rocket did not make it into orbit. NASA awarded $200,000 in prize money for a spacesuit glove that outperformed the space agency’s own glove in strength, flexibility and comfort. On the downside, NASA was not satisfied with the progress of Rocketplane Kistler, one of two companies it had sponsored to develop supply ships for the International Space Station, and cancelled its funding. And an experimental rocket-powered lunar lander built by Armadillo Aerospace, considered the frontrunner to win NASA’s lunar lander challenge prize money, was destroyed in a crash ahead of the contest. Armadillo’s backup vehicle came very close to winning NASA’s $350,000 prize, but its engine exploded on the launch pad in its final attempt. The Moon was the focus of what some were calling a new Moon race, as both Japan and China launched probes into lunar orbit, with spacecraft from the US and India expected to join them in 2008. China’s human space flight programme continued to move forward, with the country announcing plans to carry out its first spacewalk in 2008. But China also tested an anti-satellite weapon on one of its own satellites, creating a cloud of orbital debris and raising concerns that space could turn into a battleground. NASA had its share of trouble in 2007. The agency reviewed its astronaut screening process after an incident that saw one of its astronauts attack a romantic rival. Claims also emerged that NASA had allowed astronauts to fly drunk, which the agency denied. A tight budget had NASA projecting that its Orion crew exploration vehicle would not be ready until 2015, a year later than previously expected. That will increase the gap following the space shuttle’s 2010 retirement, a period in which NASA will not have the capability to fly its own spaceships on crewed missions. A powerful hailstorm damaged one of space shuttle Atlantis’s fuel tanks, forcing NASA to delay its launch from April to June while repairs were made. The year ended with another delay for Atlantis, this time for faulty fuel sensor readings. In other news, a NASA study suggested the agency’s Orion spacecraft, being developed for travel to the space station and the Moon, could be used to mount the first human mission to an asteroid, though the agency has no specific plans to do so. The first asteroid explorers may be tied to the space rocks with a contraption resembling a baby bouncer. NASA did add a piece of hardware to Hubble’s successor, the James Webb Space Telescope. That will allow a maintenance or repair mission to dock with the observatory at its planned location far beyond the Moon’s orbit, at a spot in space called L2. The agency said any such mission would likely be robotic, but it did not rule out sending humans to do the job. And the European Space Agency’s Jules Verne automated cargo ship was sent to its launch pad ahead of its first trip to the space station, planned for early 2008. The year 2007 also marked an important milestone for spaceflight, as October 4th was the 50th anniversary of the launch of the first satellite,