2021 was a huge year for space exploration, 2022 could be even bigger
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2021 will probably go down in the annals of space history as a turning point, a moment when ordinary citizens started leaving Earth on a regular basis. Multiple crews lifted off on several different spacecraft, and for a brief moment this month, there were a record 19 people in the weightless environment of space – and eight of them were private citizens.
But for all the achievements of 2021 – which include a rover landing on Mars, a small drone called Ingenuity flying in that planet's thin atmosphere and the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope, the most powerful space telescope ever – 2022 could hold just as much promise, if not more.
If 2021 was the year of the private space tourist, 2022 could be marked by the first steps toward a return to the moon, as Nasa and the growing space industry seek to maintain the momentum that has been building over the past several years in what has amounted to a renaissance of exploration.
A pair of massive rockets, both more powerful than the Saturn V that flew the Apollo astronauts to the moon, are getting ready to fly in 2022. Those launches would mark the first significant steps in Nasa's Artemis programme, which aims to return astronauts to the lunar surface by 2025 and create a campaign that would allow a permanent presence on and around the moon.
After years of development, and billions of dollars spent, Nasa is finally gearing up to launch its Space Launch System rocket and Orion crew capsule, which are designed to return astronauts to the moon for the first time since Apollo. The first mission, known as Artemis I, is scheduled for March or April and would send Orion, without any crew on board, to orbit around the moon.
If all goes well, it would be followed by Artemis II in May 2024, which would again send Orion to orbit the moon, but this time with astronauts on board. Nasa hopes a crew would be able to land on the moon by 2025, but that would depend on the success of previous flight tests and SpaceX's ability to get its Starship spacecraft up and running.
Over the past year, Elon Musk's SpaceX has been moving feverishly toward the first orbital launch of Starship, the vehicle that won a $3 billion (R46.6 billion) Nasa contract this year to rendezvous with the Orion and transport NASA's astronauts to the lunar surface.
Musk has said the company could attempt a launch in early 2022. Unlike the SLS, which would ditch its massive booster stage into the ocean after launch, Starship is designed to be fully reusable. After putting the Starship spacecraft into orbit, the Super Heavy booster would fly back to its launchpad, where it would be caught by a pair of arms extended like chopsticks.
Earlier this year, the company attempted suborbital hops, where the spacecraft launched to an altitude of about six miles, belly-flopped back to Earth horizontally, then righted itself and re-fired its engines before touching down.
Several of the landing attempts ended in fireballs. But in May, the company pulled off a successful landing, fuelling Musk's hope that the rocket could be used to transport people and cargo across the solar system.
"The overarching goal of Starship is to be able to transport enough tonnage to the moon and Mars," he said in an interview with The Washington Post earlier this year. "And to have a self-sustaining base on the moon and ultimately a self-sustaining city on Mars."
Ahead of an astronaut landing, Nasa is planning to send science missions to the lunar surface. Those missions would also be carried out by contractors hired by the space agency to deliver science experiments and technology demonstrations that Nasa says would "help the agency study Earth's nearest neighbour and prepare for human landing missions."
The first would be by Intuitive Machines, a Houston-based company that is aiming to deliver science experiments in early 2022 and again later in the year. That second mission, to the south pole of the moon, would have a drill that would probe the lunar regolith for ice. Astrobotic, based in Pittsburgh, is also planning to deliver payloads to the lunar surface under the Nasa contract.
Rocket Lab is also scheduled to launch a small satellite to the moon to serve as a precursor for human missions by testing the orbit for the space station, known as Gateway, that Nasa hopes to send to the moon. Rocket Lab, which launches from its site in New Zealand, hopes to have its first launch from the United States in 2022 from the pad it uses at Nasa's facility on Wallops Island, on Virginia's Eastern Shore.
It also plans to attempt to recover a booster next year. But unlike SpaceX, which flies the first stages of its rockets back to landing sites on the ground or ships at sea, Rocket Lab intends to catch its relatively small booster under a parachute with a helicopter.
2022 should also see the debut of a number of new rockets, including the United Launch Alliance's Vulcan rocket, which would be used by the Pentagon to launch national security satellites. Relativity Space, which uses a 3-D printer to manufacture its rockets, plans to first launch of its Terran 1 vehicle from Cape Canaveral in the coming months as well.
Boeing also is looking to get back on track. 2021 was supposed to be the year it finally completed a test flight of its Starliner spacecraft, which is being designed to ferry Nasa's astronauts to and from the International Space Station. But once again, it ran into trouble. At the end of 2019, the spacecraft suffered software problems, forcing the aviation behemoth to cut the test flight short. The spacecraft finally returned to the launchpad this summer but never got off the ground.
This time, the company said the issue was hardware: 13 valves in the service module got stuck, forcing the company to bring the spacecraft back into its manufacturing facility. The company recently announced that it would have to swap out the service module. It's now looking to attempt to launch again sometime in May. If that goes well, a launch with astronauts on board would follow.
The space station could see another new vehicle visit in 2022: Sierra Space's Dream Chaser, a spaceplane that looks like a miniature version of the space shuttle. The company has been developing the winged vehicle for years with the hopes of one day flying astronauts. But for now, it has a contract from Nasa to use it to deliver cargo and supplies to the space station. And it recently announced that it received a $1.4 billion investment that it said would help accelerate the programme.
SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft, which delivered two crews of astronauts to the space station in 2021, is slated to continue flying crews there in 2022. It also would fly at least one mission, chartered by Axiom Space, in which private astronauts who are paying $55 million apiece would spend a little more than a week on the station.
Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin, which flew three trips to the edge of space in 2021, plans to fly six or more suborbital flights in 2022. (Bezos owns The Washington Post.) And Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic is hoping to complete its test campaign and start offering commercial service on its suborbital space-plane for paying space tourists.
While those flights go just past the edge of space to a few dozen miles high, Nasa's scientists and engineers will be focused on a far more distant destination, a million miles from Earth. There, the James Webb Space Telescope would begin to unfurl itself in delicate manoeuvres after it was launched on Christmas Day on an Arianespace Ariane 5 rocket. Nasa says there are 344 potential "single-point failures" and if anything goes wrong there is no way to send a repair crew.
But if it works, the telescope would be able to capture light from more than 13 billion years ago as the beginning of the formation of the universe.
The telescope has been called an Apollo moment for science and could start answering some of astronomy's biggest questions about how the universe began.
"The whole point of this is to see the unseen universe," John M. Grunsfeld, former head of science at Nasa, recently told The Post. "James Webb will be able to see phenomena that Hubble can't see, that ground-based telescopes can't see. What are we going to discover that we had no idea was there?"
The Washington Post