Forecasts 2009 - Space: Will 2009 build towards a greater new decade of space activity?

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Spaceflight's 2009 challenge is to realise the potential of government and private-sector programmes that progressed in 2008 to achieve greater future activity, and to make the nature of that activity as much about commerce as exploration.

Progress in 2008 was varied, from China's first spacewalk, the beginning of the European Space Agency's International Space Station resupply missions, Space Exploration Technologies' fourth Falcon 1 rocket reaching orbit, NASA's awarding of commercial ISS cargo contracts, India's decision to co-operate with Russia on human spaceflight, the maiden flight of Virgin Galactic's WhiteKnightTwo mothership, Spaceport America becoming a spaceport and rocket and spacecraft design reviews for NASA's return to the Moon programme Constellation.

In the first few months of this year Constellation and its 2020 Moon return goal faces its most difficult challenge, the change of administration in the US government. Plagued by constant criticism of its Ares I crew launch vehicle booster and budgetary-related delays to the whole programme, the decisions by president-elect Barack Obama's government about NASA funding and Constellation are complicated by the Space Shuttle fleet's imminent 2010 retirement.

Broadly, Obama has the choice of cancelling Constellation and making NASA's mission Planet Earth, potentially ending US human spaceflight after 2010, or making the ISS the focus but ending that in 2015 along with the astronaut programme, or deferring Shuttle retirement and Constellation's Moon return date and turning to the commercial sector for extended ISS operations.

whiteknighttwo 
 © Alan Radecki

The first two choices are bad for the electorally important state of Florida and, with a world depression, Obama's re-election strategy could be to maintain the status quo for NASA and defer any retirements and cancellations beyond the recession. Whatever he does, these choices for the USA have major implications for the ISS partners, including the ESA.

After a year that saw success for ESA with the start of its Columbus ISS laboratory operations and its expendable station resupply vessel, the Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV), the agency had set out an ambitious agenda for its member states, linked to the world's space agencies' global exploration strategy.

However, ESA now faces 2009 with less money for human spaceflight activities than it wantedafter its November 2008 member states meeting decided to keep its triennial funding regime on an even keel, but to delay any further leaps for manned exploration. Gone is the idea of an all-ESA or Russian joint venture manned spacecraft programme starting this year. Instead, after years of delays, the industrial contracts for the Galileo satellite navigation programme should finally be signed. For all its gazing at the stars and a December maiden flight for its new Vega rocket, ESA's governments want it to focus on the home world over the next 12 months.

Last year Japan shared with ESA in the success of their ISS laboratories starting work. For the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, its Kibo module was delivered by Space Shuttle, as was ESA's Columbus laboratory, and both were operational by the third quarter of the year. This year JAXA faces a test that ESA was able to overcome in 2008 - the delivery of cargo to ISS using its own spacecraft. ESA's Jules Verne ATV reached the station last March, launched on an EADS Astrium Ariane 5, which used a modified upper stage for the second time.

LOGISTICS TEST

Japan's test is more difficult because its first cargo spaceship, H-II Transfer Vehicle (HTV), is being launched by the Mitsubishi Heavy Industries H-IIB rocket on its mid-year maiden flight. The H-IIB shares an upper stage with the H-II rocket, but has a new first stage, successfully ground-tested last year.

A failure of the H-IIB or HTV will test the ISS partners' logistics capability and plans for an increase from three crew to six from May. At a time when NASA is planning the retirement of the Shuttle, its only option for replacing that lost cargo capability is its Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) demonstration programme and related ISS Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contracts. COTS' two participants, SpaceX and Orbital Sciences, were awarded the CRS contracts in December and these two companies will have to deliver on their COTS agreement milestones this year or NASA faces 2011 with no cargo capacity at all.

China, excluded from the ISS programme, is to continue focusing on its timetable of a manned mission every two years after its spacewalk success last September. This year will see preparation for the fourth manned mission, Shenzou-8, expected to dock with China's Tiangong-1, an 8,000kg (17,600lb) orbital station, by 2011. Tiangong-1's use by astronauts is a precursor to the deployment of a Chinese space station later in the next decade using China's new Long March 5 rocket.

India, China's billion-citizen near peer, might get the green light from its government for plans drawn up in 2008 to launch two Indian astronauts in 2015, with Russian help. The manned programme would reinforce the view of India as a superpower-to-be - the nation has its own launchers, is co-operating with Europe on telecommunications satellite development, plans to have its own space-based navigation system and its Chandrayaan-1 probe reached the Moon in November,

While in 2009 Asia could see the beginning of what might become a space race between economic heavyweights, the USA will witness the laying of foundations for the suborbital tourism industry. After WK2's maiden flight on 21 December 2008, its rocket glider SpaceShipTwo will be rolled out this year amid preparations for the literal laying of foundations for New Mexico's Spaceport America - a prospect made more likely by Virgin Galactic and Spaceport America signing a 20-year lease contract at the end of last year.

TOURISTS CAN WAIT

While suborbital tourism strides forward, tourists wanting to reach orbit will have to wait a little longer after May. This year will see ISS tourism end for the foreseeable future because of the station's crew increase to six. The US company Space Adventures will send its fifth tourist, Charles Simonyi, to ISS for the second time in the second quarter, but after that it will be unable to send any more customers on regular ISS crew taxi flights because there are no spare seats. The company now talks about a 2011 private flight.

By then Bigelow Aerospace could have launched its Sundancer space station module, having placed a propulsion system contract last year. Hotelier Robert Bigelow's aerospace company set out its business case in 2007 after successfully launching its Genesis spacecraft and is offering private orbital complexes for government and corporate research.

And NASA's CRS award to SpaceX could overcome the hindrance of a lack of a transport system to get Bigelow's customers to and from his space station. SpaceX chief executive Elon Musk has spoken to Bigelow about using the Falcon 9 rocket and a crew version of its Dragon spacecraft to service the Bigelow space stations. SpaceX's COTS/CRS Falcon 9 should have its maiden flight in the fourth quarter, orbiting the cargo version of the Dragon.

All in all, further progress in 2009, on top of the advances made last year, could make the second decade of the 21st century a time when space is exploited for science and commerce by many more nations and, in a departure from the past 50 years of spaceflight, by private companies.