Space is cool
Apart from boldly going where no one has gone before, finding us somewhere to go when Armageddon hits and trying to make contact with whoever, or whatever, is out there, the more immediate benefits of space exploration were also evident throughout the year, as spacecraft, satellites, telescopes and other tech expanded mankind's scientific understanding and gave us cool pictures to look at.
We had more than one glimpse of the scientific wonder of black holes, whether supermassive or garden-variety.
One was beautifully pictured by international boffins by melding together images from telescopes across the southern hemisphere.
Particle jets belching from the supermassive black hole at the centre of Centaurus A. Credit: ESO/WFI (visible); MPIfR/ESO/APEX/A.Weiss et al. (microwave); NASA/CXC/CfA/R.Kraft et al. (X-ray)
While two independent research groups found a cloud of water vapour around this specimen.
Stargazers at the European Southern Observatory spotted a supermassive black hole gobbling up a huge gas cloud and in the process showing that things do go bendy and stretchy around a singularity.
And just this month, space boffins discovered the supermassive black hole – a behemoth with nearly ten billion times the mass of our Sun and an event horizon that would stretch five times further than the orbit of Pluto – enough to swallow the entire solar system.
Also breaking records, NASA's Voyager space probes continued to fly towards deep space, into never-before-seen void beyond the edge of the Sun's influence on our solar system.
Voyager 1 reached the very edge of the heliosheath – the skin of the 'bubble' of our star's power – on 5 December and NASA boffins are saying we won't have long to wait until we see "what the space between stars is really like".
Artist's impression of Voyager 1 and 2 in the heliosheath Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
As previously mentioned, NASA has a keen interest in asteroids, whether Earth-killing or not, and so kept the world updated throughout the year on the progress of the Dawn probe, dispatched in 2007 to check out the asteroid belt giant Vesta.
The first of many pictures from the probe found its way back to Earth in May, quickly followed by a second snap as it headed into orbit around the second-largest object orbiting between Mars and Jupiter.
Dawn image of Vesta's dark side. Credit: NASA
Dawn was also able to pick up information about the composition of Vesta, discovering that the asteroid was much more like a planet than the usual kind of rocks floating around out there.
"The distinct compositional variation and layering that we see at Vesta appear to derive from internal melting of the body shortly after formation, which separated Vesta into crust, mantle and core," the deputy principal investigator, Carol Raymond, said.
Next page: Sharing space in space
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.