2017 was a year of groundbreaking discoveries and record-setting exploration at NASA. Join the PRIDE family of newspapers for Part Two of our annual four-part look back at The Year in Space (and on Earth). Part One examined NASA and the Moon, the Solar System and Beyond; this week, Part Two will more closely explore Mars and the International Space Station; Part Three will look at Aeronautics, Aviation, and Earth Sciences Research; and we conclude in Part Four on Technology and Public Engagement.
One of the numerous NASA-related activities and actions the Trump Administration did in 2017 was to reconstitute the National Space Council. During its first meeting on Oct. 5, Vice President Mike Pence directed NASA to develop a plan to help extend human exploration across our solar system, and return astronauts to the Moon in preparation for human missions to Mars and other destinations.
In 2017, NASA made progress in the preparations to send astronauts to Mars, as well as reaching the milestone of 20 years of continuous robotic scientific exploration of the Red Planet. And a record 2.4 million space fans signed up this year to send their names to Mars on NASA’s InSight mission, a robotic lander designed to study the interior and subsurface of the planet in 2018.
On Nov. 16, NASA selected a science instrument for an upcoming sample return mission to the moons of Mars: a Japan-led mission known as MMX to the moons of Mars. The instrument will help scientists resolve questions about when and how the small moons formed around the Red Planet.
After receiving a record-breaking number of applications to join an exciting future of space exploration, NASA selected on June 12 women and men as the agency’s new astronaut candidates. They may fly on future deep space missions using the world’s most powerful rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS), and the Orion spacecraft. This year, NASA has been building and testing hardware for both the first and second missions for SLS and Orion.
Some of this year’s highlights about progress toward human deep space missions to the Moon and Mars include the first piece of completed SLS hardware for the first test mission, Exploration Mission-1, being delivered to Kennedy Space Center for processing. Flight preparations are complete for the four liquid fuel engines that will help power SLS on its first mission, and engineers began testing engines for the second mission that will carry crew, Exploration Mission-2. All five parts of the rocket’s core stage are built and ready for additional outfitting and testing. The 10 motor segments have been cast for the two solid rocket boosters, and they are on track to be ready for the first integrated test flight.
NASA has moved up a critical crew safety launch abort test for the Orion spacecraft in advance of the first launch with humans, and teams also have been testing the parachutes to bring the capsule to a safe landing as well as exit procedures for the crew after returning from a mission. Meanwhile, teams powered on the Orion spacecraft for the first integrated test launch, and are busy building the Orion capsule for the first crewed mission. At the future launch site for SLS and Orion, upgrades to the walls of the flame trench are complete as well as the installation of all the work platforms in the Vehicle Assembly Building where the rocket will be stacked prior to launch.
The agency began studying the deep space gateway concept with U.S. industry and space station partners. Using the most powerful rocket in the world, NASA would launch a power and propulsion element, habitation module for crew, and logistics module for the gateway concept in the early crewed missions of SLS and Orion.
NASA continues to use its Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships (NextSTEP) public-private partnership model to seek commercial development of deep space exploration capabilities. This year, NASA is seeking proposals for development of a first-generation, in-space, multi-material fabrication laboratory, or FabLab, for space missions; selected five companies for studies for the gateway power and propulsion element; announced it will seek proposals for research contracts in In Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU) Technology; and its partners are developing prototypes of habitat structures.
NASA engaged the public in many citizen challenges, including the Space Poop challenge, which awarded winners for proposed solutions to address how to collect and route human waste away from the body, if an astronaut were wearing a spacesuit in microgravity for up to six days.
In 2017, six NASA astronauts have lived aboard the International Space Station, supporting more than 120 new U.S. research investigations conducted in the unique microgravity laboratory to prepare for future deep space exploration and improve life on Earth.
Investigations included research leading to new knowledge about combustion processes, tests of a drug to help fight cancer, and technology demonstrations like the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM). In addition, the space station hosts many external experiments that observe Earth and our environment from space and study space physics, such as neutron stars, black holes, and the search for dark matter. More than 170 total U.S. investigations this year are advancing our understanding in biology and biotechnology, physical sciences, human research, technology development and education.
Additional space station highlights from 2017 include the arrival of the Expedition 53 crew, which marked the first long-term increase in crew size on the U.S. segment from three to four, allowing NASA to maximize time dedicated to research. Peggy Whitson broke multiple records during an extended mission to the station, becoming the U.S. astronaut who has spent the most total time in space, tallying 665 days during three missions. During nine spacewalks, NASA astronauts’ work prepared for the arrival of future commercial crew spacecraft and upgraded the station’s capabilities.
During five missions in 2017, NASA’s commercial cargo partners Orbital ATK and SpaceX launched more than 32,900 pounds of critical supplies to the International Space Station, including crew supplies and equipment to support the hundreds of crucial science experiments and technology demonstrations aboard the space station. With its splashdown in the Pacific Ocean following three resupply missions, the SpaceX Dragon capsule also returned more than 13,000 pounds of research and equipment.
NASA advanced its goal to once again launch astronauts from Florida’s Space Coast to the International Space station as Commercial Crew Program providers Boeing and SpaceX made progress on the Starliner and Crew Dragon spacecraft and systems, respectively. Boeing revealed its spacesuit design early in the year and conducted important parachute and qualification tests. SpaceX also unveiled its spacesuit, and worked with NASA and the Air Force to refine its procedures to retrieve astronauts from the water following a mission to the space station.
Sierra Nevada Corporation successfully completed a free-flight test of its Dream Chaser spacecraft, meeting the final milestone of a space act agreement for the Commercial Crew Program. The test also supported a milestone in preparation to carry cargo and science investigations to the space station under the agency’s next generation commercial resupply services contracts.
The space station continues to be used to inspire future generations with a special focus for a Year of Education on Station with astronauts and former classroom teachers Joe Acaba and Ricky Arnold, and their crewmates.
NASA’s space communications and navigation capabilities were upgraded with the August launch of the Space Network’s Tracking and Data Relay Satellite-M (TDRS-M), the third and final in the Space Network’s space system that provides near-constant communication links to Earth from the International Space Station, the Hubble Space Telescope, and many other missions.
The station also helped advance technology needed to enable human exploration of deep space: the in-orbit characterization of Phase Change Heat Material Heat Exchangers was completed to provide better temperature regulation for Orion and future deep space vehicles.