MDA, NASA Shine In 2006; Moon/Mars Vehicle Contract Set
The year 2006 was lustrous for both the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) and NASA, as programs moved ahead sharply and many if not all woes were blasted into the past.
For NASA, the agency appeared to allay the threat that another space shuttle disaster could be triggered by chunks of foam insulation.
In 2003, foam ripped loose from the external fuel tank of Space Shuttle Columbia shortly after launch, punching a hole in the leading edge of an orbiter vehicle wing. That hole meant the orbiter disintegrated during reentry, with the loss of both the vehicle and crew.
But in 2006, NASA moved to modify external tanks and remove excess foam insulation.
While some senior NASA officials expressed misgivings, NASA Adminstrator Michael Griffin weighed many conflicting views, examined data and projections, and finally concluded that Space Shuttle Discovery could launch from Kennedy Space Center, Fla.
The brilliantly sunlit launch, a Fourth of July skyrocket seen miles away, showed that Griffin was right.
Discovery soared into orbit with no huge chunks of foam flying loose, no giant holes punched in the spacecraft, and the crew safe.
To provide still greater safety for both craft and crew, minute inspections of orbiter vehicles were mandated, after launch, upon arrival at the International Space Station (ISS), and after undocking from the ISS.
That July launch of Discovery with its pathfinding success story was replicated by the sterling performance of Space Shuttle Atlantis in a daylight September launch, and by the first nighttime launch of a shuttle in years when Discovery rose off the pad in December.
The one hole found in the shuttles was seen in Atlantis after landing, and foam insulation didn’t cause it: apparently a micrometeorite punched a tiny hole in a radiator.
It’s critical that the space shuttle fleet can launch dependably and operate safely, because NASA faces a tight and demanding schedule to finish construction of the ISS before the shuttles are slated for retirement in 2010. The space agency is going to have to average about four shuttle launches each year to get the job done. Only the shuttles are large enough and sufficiently powerful to haul some of the very large structural components to the ISS.
And since returning to flight, the shuttle crews last year wrought a stellar record for building the space station.
Immense trusses were added to the station, solar arrays were furled and unfurled, the station electrical system was rewired into a permanent configuration, and tons of cargo were trucked to the ISS and tons more waste or unwanted items were off-loaded and brought back to Earth.
And it all occurred because of a few good people in the heavens, including astronauts making repeated spacewalks hundreds of miles above the planet as the ISS and shuttle streaked along at 17,500 miles an hour, backed by myriad other personnel providing support on the ground.
After years of talk, NASA selected companies to provide transportation vehicles to replace the shuttle fleet, not only for missions to the space station, but in expeditions the shuttles never could attempt, such as missions to the moon, Mars and beyond.
President Bush set forth this vision for the nation as a challenge to be met in coming decades.
NASA selected Lockheed Martin Corp. [LMT] to develop the Orion manned spacecraft, earlier called the Crew Exploration Vehicle, which is to be lofted into space atop an Ares rocket. Lockheed beat a team headed by Northrop Grumman Corp. [NOC] and The Boeing Co. [BA], an outcome that surprised many analysts.
As well, NASA selected smaller firms to build vehicles that will be used for more mundane crew and cargo hauling missions to the space station, including Rocketplane Kistler and competitor SpaceX, in the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program.
MDA Moves Ahead
The Missile Defense Agency saw solid progress in 2006, and a greater appreciation by top federal policymakers of just how vitally needed the MDA missile shield has become.
Progress was achieved in the Airborne Laser, Aegis ship-based systems, the ground-based missile defense program and others during the past year.
The critical and urgent need for the United States to erect a multi-layered ballistic missile defense (BMD) shield was underscored when North Korea fired off seven missiles in July. The threat only grew worse when North Korea successfully detonated a nuclear weapon in an underground test in October. And Iran refused to halt its nuclear materials processing program, and fired a missile from a submerged submarine.
Even though an improper setting stymied an Aegis BMD test against multiple targets late in 2006, the sea-based defense program has racked up far more successes than failures.
Members of Congress have praised MDA for showing real progress, while some lawmakers still wish to see more, and more realistic, tests of BMD systems.
But there have been no loud or overriding voices attempting to assert that the United States doesn’t need a workable missile defense shield.
In other events, 2006 saw the advancement of private rocket vehicles capable of flight to near space, the growth of space tourism for well-heeled and adventuresome travelers, the sighting of evidence that water has flowed on the surface of Mars recently, the continued operation of Mars rovers that were supposed to have quit working years ago, and the beginning of the STEREO twin spacecraft unlocking secrets of the sun.