What's Ahead For The U.S. Space Program

Dec 29, 2019
Originally published on December 30, 2019 8:53 am


2020 could be a banner year for the U.S. space program. If all goes well, two commercial companies may be able to send astronauts into space. This country hasn't been able to do that since the shuttle program ended in 2011. Also next year, a new six-wheeled rover is supposed to head off to Mars. And hundreds of small satellites are scheduled to go into orbit. And that will provide global Internet coverage. Here to talk about the year ahead in space is NPR science correspondent Joe Palca. Hey, Joe.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: All right. Tell us about the two companies that are supposed to carry NASA astronauts into space.

PALCA: Well, one is SpaceX. They're kind of the new kid on the block. But I guess now they're not so new. They've had a pretty good track record of sending rockets into space. And they've been building this Dragon crew capsule that's going to be able to carry up to seven astronauts. The other one is the familiar Boeing Company. They make something called the Starliner...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Both good names - Dragon and Starliner. I dig it.

PALCA: Yeah. Very good, very inspirational. But both Starliner and Dragon have faced all kinds of problems and are significantly behind schedule. And 2020 is aspirational, I think, for both of them. They may not actually make it into space with astronauts next year. They hope so. But they don't know.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What about the next rover mission? Does it have a cool name yet?

PALCA: Well, cool if you like Mars 2020, which is what we've been calling it for a while. They'll probably give it a name like Courage or Horizon or something - you know, something like that.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Something like that.

PALCA: They're - actually, they get school kids to pick the name. So...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Aw, love that.

PALCA: But they haven't informed the public about whether they've selected one. Like the rover that's currently on Mars called Curiosity, it's got a camera. It's got a robotic arm. Its main difference is that this mission is supposed to pave the way for the day - sometime off in the future - where a rover or lander of some sort will collect samples and get them ready to return to Earth. The other thing that I think is kind of interesting about this mission is it has an experiment on board. It's an instrument for extracting oxygen from the Martian atmosphere. Former astronaut Jeff Hoffman of MIT is one of the co-leaders on the instrument called MOXIE.


JEFF HOFFMAN: What we're doing with MOXIE is to go after the oxygen that is combined with carbon to make up the carbon dioxide, which forms about 95% of the Martian atmosphere.

PALCA: So they'll use a chemical process known as electrolysis to split these two things in part, and they'll get carbon and oxygen. They won't get very much. But the idea is to show you could do this for some future mission.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Is it the idea that like, humans could use that to, like, colonize Mars?

PALCA: Well, the idea is, if you're going to go to Mars, you might as well try and make the best use you can of whatever materials are there. And also, you need to make some oxygen as an oxidizer for a fuel that you might want to use to come home.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And what about all these satellites that will provide global Internet coverage? That's sounds exciting.

PALCA: It's a really interesting concept. The idea is that you put up a huge fleet - maybe thousands of these satellites. And that means that at any time at any place on Earth, there'll be one overhead that could connect you to the Internet. Great. But suddenly, astronomers realized that around dawn and dusk when they're getting sunlight glinting off them from the sun, they shine. Victoria Girgis works at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Ariz. And she saw these through her telescope when the first set were launched earlier this year.

VICTORIA GIRGIS: My first immediate reaction was, that's visually kind of cool. My secondary reaction was, man, you can't see a single galaxy.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That doesn't sound good for an astronomer.

PALCA: No, it's not. The question is - they're trying to figure out, well, how bad will it be? And can they do anything that can - that sort of digitally block these out. But it's an open question at the moment.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And there's also a mission to study the sun that's supposed to launch from Cape Canaveral in February. What is that mission hoping to learn?

PALCA: Well, this is a European Space Agency mission called Solar Orbiter. And it's also going to be complementing a U.S. mission called Parker Solar Probe, which is going to the sun. It's learning about solar wind and the physics of the how the outer atmosphere of the sun heats up. For the first time, this mission is going to go above the sun. If you've got two minutes and 15 seconds to kill, go to the European Space Agency website, and watch this crazy thing where it goes past Venus. And then it goes past the Earth. And then it goes past Venus and Venus and Venus seven more times, as it continually climbs up higher, higher altitude above - or angle above the sun so that it can look down on the poles of the sun. That'll be interesting.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: All right. That's NPR's Joe Palca. Thank you very much.

PALCA: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.