February 7, 2023

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Last year marked the end of an era in spaceflight - here's what we'll see next

Last year marked the end of an era in spaceflight – here’s what we’ll see next

Zoom in / The launch of the Artemis I mission to Earth marked the end of an era in mission development for NASA.

Trevor Mahlman

Last year was a momentous year for spaceflight, bringing to an end many of the most important events that have dominated the industry in the last 10 to 15 years.

Consider the state of play in 2010: Spaceflight activities were dominated by a handful of large government space agencies. NASA was still flying the venerable Space Shuttle with no clear plan for deep space exploration. The James Webb Space Telescope has been in development hell. Russia was the dominant launch provider in the world, putting as many rockets into space that year as the United States and China combined. At that time, China’s longest human space flight was four days. A lot has changed in the past decade or so.

The year 2022 was a watershed moment because many major stories since 2010 have come to an end. In this sense, it looks like the end of an era and the opening of a new one in spaceflight. So, this story is going to take a look at five of those major space storylines and then try to predict what some of the dominant storylines for the remainder of the 2020s will be.

We have an exciting but uncertain road ahead.

Looking back

James Webb Space Telescope. NASA spent about two decades and $10 billion developing this huge and complex space telescope. It has been the subject of countless articles describing all potential hacks but also cost overruns and endless delays.

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The telescope finally launched on Christmas Day 2021, and then spent the first half of 2022 extensively deploying and operating its science instruments. But when astronomers finally pointed him skyward, Wonderland Web Delivery.

The process of designing, building and testing this telescope on Earth took so much time and money that we may never see such a telescope again. The next group can be assembled in space, not on Earth. Regardless, the era of Webb’s development is over. The era of discovery has begun.

May he live long and prosper.

The James Webb Space Telescope has captured a stunning new view of the iconic Pillars of Creation.
Zoom in / The James Webb Space Telescope has captured a stunning new view of the iconic Pillars of Creation.

Space launch system. This was another massive development program by NASA in 2010, as the space agency sought to build a very heavy rocket. The program consumed about $20 billion. But while the Webb Space Telescope includes many new elements and represents the latest technology, the SLS rocket did not.

The rocket was controversial from the start because the SLS reconfigured parts of the Space Shuttle—its main engines, solid rocket boosters, and even the diameter of its primary stage was almost identical to the shuttle’s external fuel tank. This rocket was seen as a congressional-mandated program to keep workers at NASA and its major contractors, such as Boeing and Northrop, on gainful employment. The justification for this decision was increasingly unsupportable as the 2000s progressed and private launch companies like SpaceX proved more efficient than the government.

An additional sore point is that although the missile was originally supposed to be launched at the end of 2016, it wasn’t launched until November 2022.

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However, once the SLS missile was launched, it performed its task flawlessly. The Artemis I mission got off to a stellar start with the SLS rocket bringing Orion into its target orbit, a landmark achievement for a first-time launch. This is how the “Block 1” saga ends the development of the SLS missile. It’s nice when space stories have a happy ending.