The Martian marathon
Jupiter probe notwithstanding, the main focus for the big space agencies over this year has been the race to the Red Planet.
NASA, Russian space agency Roscosmos and the European Space Agency are all keen on all things Martian, and all of them undertook various steps in the journey to getting space-boots on the ochre sands.
The ESA had locked six men up in a fake spacecraft for 520 days to (sort of) prove that astronauts could possibly one day go to Mars. They emerged towards the end of this year, after their months of captivity and a four-day simulated descent to the 'surface' of the Red Planet.
NASA was also looking towards Mars, with the launch of its biggest and baddest rover yet, Curiosity, whose mission it is to find out if the Red Planet ever sustained microbial life and/or the elusive water that could make that possible.
The small-SUV-sized truck, boasting cameras, a robotic arm, a drill and a powerful laser for vapourising rocks/hostile alien life-forms, only had one delay of one day to its proposed lift off and took off without a hitch on 26 November.
Once up and away, the launch was a little less smooth, punctuated with repeated brief losses of data from the vehicle. However, the telemetry losses soon evened out and 36 minutes into the flight, NASA reported nice, clean info making its way to mission control.
Curiosity should be touching down in the Gale crater sometime in August 2012.
While NASA's Martian mission was coming together nicely, the Russians once more suffered an inexplicable smackdown for its Mars ambitions.
The dud Martian probe
The now-famous Phobos-Grunt probe was due to make a trip to Mars, circle the planet gathering data and then land on Martian moon Phobos to collect samples.
Hitching a ride with the craft was Chinese satellite Yinghuo-1, which should have been left in Mars orbit to study magnetic and gravity fields, ionosphere and surface details - China's first interplanetary mission.
The craft launched from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on 8 November and reached orbit around Earth with no problems.
As soon as it got there though, the problems started. Phobos-Grunt's two engines failed to fire to send it on its way to the Red Planet, leaving the craft stuck circling the planet.
To add insult to injury, the Russians couldn't even figure out what went wrong, because they couldn't contact the probe.
Next page: Are you out there, Phobos-Grunt?
Shuttle meant more capabilities than just moving stuff around
Too many people really didn't understand what was lost with the Shuttle retirement. It wasn't only its payload capacity, which was far larger than many "COTS" devices available now, some payloads due to their size and weight can't be carried on most rockets available, and the Shuttle also allowed for more "delicate" payloads due to its "softer" take off.
The Shuttle allowed for a "space operation"s capability - see the Hubble maintenance - that now it is lost because no other platform can carry seven astronauts and a full assortment of reusable facilities (from the robotic arm to the needed tools). It could also bring back to Earth large payloads, and that capability is now fully lost.
NASA can put the Webb Telescope in a Lagrangian point, and let's hope everything goes well or it will be just a brick flying there, and it will anyway last far less than Hubble, as most of other satellites from now on.
If you look at the Shuttle just as commercial satellite launcher, well, it's too expensive and complex. It you look at it as a versatile space operation platform, it was very valuable. NASA should have started to design a new, less expensive platform (the thermal protection was designed in the seventies - there is really no way to design now a simpler one??) instead of trying to design an Apollo with LCD screen.
Meanwhile, moving from away LEO with actual engine technology is wishful thinking. The Saturn V was already capable of it. But it was too expensive also. Probably to move away from LEO you need to start from LEO. But first a full "space operations" capability form LEO is need. And it won't be achieved with Sojuz and Orion.
The NASA problem was keeping on selling the Shuttle as a commercial launcher, even when it was clear it was not, stopping development of cheaper launcher for commercial satellites.
It's useless to compare it to Proton, Taurus or SpaceX. It's like comparing a cargo ship to a aircraft carrier. If you have to ship eighty airplanes across an ocean you may just use a cargo. If you need full aircraft operations across it you need a nuclear carrier, even if it is much more expensive to operate.
Using a reausable, heavy, man-rated and expensive launcher to deliver commercial comm satellites was a nonsense that shows how NASA management was (and is) really incompetent. The Shuttle should have been uses as a prototype and scientific vessel to build space operations capability, as it did in its high-end missions.
Even if Orion can reach HEO or Lagrangian points, what could it do there besides saying "look mama, I'm here!" and then get back? Even if SLS is built, it will mean its very expensive payloads have no way to be returned to Earth and resused, and thereby will be abandoned in space or destroyed on return - how will it be "cheaper" than the reusable Shuttle facilities for high-end missions?
The whole MPCV has only one reason to exist, to keep on funding an aerospace industry full of engineers who spend too much time on Facebook and have only a tiny fraction of the skills their fathers and grandfathers had.