Confidence in the world's space industry and national programmes will either be enhanced or severely tested - and perhaps damaged - in 2007 as stalled efforts from 2006 carry over to the new year.
At stake is confidence in: the Shuttle programme's ability to sustain a flight rate the new commercial space transportation companies the nascent space tourism industry Boeing's future in manned space Lockheed and Boeing's United Launch Alliance deal Europe's future as a space power Russia's ability to maintain a satellite constellation and China's progress with manned spaceflight.
NASA plans five Space Shuttle flights in 2007 as it gets the troubled orbiter launch programme back on track
The world's most expensive manned spaceflight programme, NASA's Space Shuttle, achieved another success with the launch of Orbiter Discovery on 9 December last year, setting the US space agency on course to regain a flight rate of at least five missions in one calendar year. That flight rate will be needed for each of the next three years, but NASA has already slipped the first three launches of 2007 by up to a month, because of the need for more time to modify the Shuttle's external tanks.
The last two Shuttle launches for 2007 are for International Space Station (ISS) laboratory modules, the European Space Agency's (ESA) Columbus and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency's Kibo. Delaying those launches to 2008 will put the final ISS configuration at risk. In a related launch, ESA is aiming to send its first Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) supply ship to the ISS in July on board a modified Arianespace Ariane 5 booster - but the ATV should have flown in 2003.
In parallel with launch preparations for station construction missions, NASA will progress its return to the Moon Constellation programme.
With Lockheed selected for the Orion crew exploration vehicle and ATK Launch Systems for the Ares I crew launch vehicle's first stage, the third quarter of 2007 should see the production contract for the Ares I's upper stage awarded and competition increase for its instrument unit, which is up for grabs in 2008.
Lockheed, ATK and Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne announced their alliance to win the upper-stage contract last September. Boeing, which says it will compete for the two Ares I contracts, is yet to announce its team. Failure to win either or both will jeopardise confidence in its future in the US manned programme, which would then rely on it winning the Ares V, Earth departure stage and lunar lander contracts.
Meanwhile, for NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) programme, the onus to succeed is on the shoulders of the two contractors, California's Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) and Oklahoma-based Rocketplane-Kistler (RpK).
The two competitors have to accomplish several milestones this year to convince NASA they can provide ISS cargo delivery and return by 2010, and that it should to continue fund them.
By the end of this month, SpaceX's Falcon 1 rocket could make its second flight attempt. Its maiden launch ended in disaster 29s into the ascent last March.
It has to succeed because Falcon 1, designed to place 570kg (1,250lb) into low Earth orbit (LEO), is the basis for the company's COTS bid vehicle, the 3,400kg to geostationary transfer orbit Falcon 9.
With Falcon 9 engine and stage firings due in the first quarter, confidence in one of the COTS bidders faces an early test.
Once RpK assembles its first K-1 booster, it could face trial by a hot engine firing later in the year - a timetable influenced by its unfortunate change of strategic partner in the third quarter of 2006, from Orbital Sciences to Andrews Space and ATK.
SpaceX wants to offer Falcon 9 to the US Department of Defense but it will have to convince the Boeing/Lockheed Martin joint venture United Launch Alliance that it has a vehicle as reliable as those companies' Atlas and Delta launchers.
Oddly, that was the deal in 2006 that made ULA possible, with its founders agreeing to consider other companies' launch vehicles for DoD missions.
While Lockheed negotiates with the DoD and Boeing about launch manifests for military missions, 2007 could see it drawn into the nascent space tourism market. It is studying the man-rating of its Atlas V launcher for Bigelow Aerospace.
Nevada-based Bigelow had one great triumph last year with the successful deployment of its Genesis I inflatable spacecraft. Orbiting since last July, Genesis is the b asis for a habitable orbital module or complex that Bigelow wants to use to provide services to governments, corporations and individuals. This month could see the launch of Genesis II, which will test more systems for the habitable version. If successful, it would add greatly to public confidence that a private LEO economy could be a reality.
Confidence in the sub-orbital tourism field will also be tested when the New Mexico government seeks to obtain a spaceport licence from the FAA this month. The state also needs to convince its legislature to stump up $25 million for construction, organise a $100 million state bond issue, and win county plebiscites for sales tax increases in April.
By the third quarter, the Scaled Composites-designed Virgin Galactic White Knight 2 carrier aircraft should be unveiled and its payload, SpaceShipTwo, is due to be revealed in the fourth quarter.
At that time, the results of a European Commission and ESA study into the feasibility of a European sub-orbital tourism vehicle should have been completed.
Joint space policy
The EC's involvement suggests one area that could be included in the stalled ESA/EU joint space policy. Confidence in Europe's future in space depends on this document, which was delayed to 2007 because of EU budget deliberations.
With 15 of the 17 ESA member states being EU partners, such a joint strategic space document will have a major impact on what ESA is expected to do. Its director, Jean-Jacques Dordain, has already spoken of expanding ESA's remit to include defence-related projects. So significant is this joint policy that ESA has begun a study into the future European governance of space that encompasses possible political and industrial structures.
A near-term test of this new relationship between the EC and space is Thales' purchase of Alcatel's stake in the Alcatel/Finmeccanica Alcatel Alenia Space and Telespazio joint ventures. The EC is now analysing the deal to see if it breaks EU competition law.
The European satellite navigation system Galileo, a joint venture between the EU and ESA, is expected to be a part of the new European space policy. Confidence in Galileo could be shaken if the launch of its second test spacecraft, Galileo In-Orbit Validation Element (GIOVE)-B, is delayed again. It was originally due to be launched in April 2006, but after a computer failure during a vacuum chamber test, GIOVE-B's launch was put back to the end of 2007.
That is just a year before the first four Galileo constellation satellites are expected to be deployed, yet GIOVE-B is to test important sub-systems to be used by those spacecraft.
Meanwhile, Russia will seek to re-establish its global navigation satellite system Glonass, which deteriorated in the 1990s, with several launches of its new spacecraft Glonass-M. It hopes to have Glonass operating throughout Russia by the end of 2007.
Finally, this year represents another opportunity for China to increase international confidence in its manned spaceflight programme. However, the official Chinese government news agency Xinhua - also known as New China News Agency - has reported there is no fixed timetable, suggesting there may be no such mission this year.
What China will do, according to the government's white paper on its present and future space activities, is continue to promote the Asia-Pacific Region Multilateral Co-operation's Small Multi-Mission Satellites Project. "Together with Bangladesh, Iran, the Republic of Korea, Mongolia, Pakistan and Thailand, China has started the joint research, manufacture and application of small multi-mission satellites, to be launched in 2007," its says.
While much of China's effort is shrouded in Communist party secrecy, failure by NASA to progress Constellation, and ESA to have GIOVE-B in-orbit, could have budget implications for the Europeans, who are facing another member state ministerial conference on ESA's activities in 2008, and NASA, which will have to answer to a space-indifferent Democrat party-dominated Congress.