Get ready to lift off with the Summer of Space
After nine years America will rocket back into orbit while the UAE is also heading to Mars
They are calling it “Launch America” but a better title for the coming months might well be the “Summer of Space”.
It was due to begin this week, with the launch of the first manned space mission from American soil in nine years on Wednesday. Unfortunately, deteriorating weather conditions at the Kennedy Space Centre saw the SpaceX Crew Dragon mission to the International Space Station aborted in the final 17 minutes of countdown.
A second attempt will be made to launch what would also have been the first commercial space flight on Saturday.
And there are plenty more space missions due over the summer. The climax will be in July, when a small fleet of craft from other nations will head off to Mars, including the UAE’s Hope mission.
In respect of America's intentions, Nasa, the US space agency, is preparing to send two of its astronauts to the International Space Station in its first manned flight since the end of the Space Shuttle programme in 2011.
The pair, Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley, are already in quarantine - a routine procedure given an added twist by coronavirus - and their capsule is in place at the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida.
The planned lift off is 4.33pm local time on May 27 on the east coast of America, although, a little confusingly, this will be just after midnight on May 28 in the UAE.
Watch Launch America live
The intrepid duo will blast off from Launchpad 39a, a location heavy with space history including the first Apollo missions to the Moon and the later Space Shuttle programme.
This will be a launch with a difference though, and not just because the normally packed public viewing areas are closed by Covid-19.
Behnken, 49, and Hurley, 53, are Nasa veterans, with hundreds of hours under their belt in the Shuttle programme.
This time their craft is a SpaceX Crew Dragon, a commercial partnership with the US space agency and the private company founded by Elon Musk in 2002.
The venture already has the blessing of President Trump, who in typical fashion described Musk earlier this year as someone who “does good at rockets”.
The billionaire entrepreneur, who holds dual South African and US citizenship, has indeed done good with SpaceX.
The company has already been supplying the ISS with unmanned capsules since 2012, including the 2017 mission that carried the Genes in Space experiment devised by Dubai teenage Alia Al Mansoori.
With the Demo-2 mission, as the flight is called, SpaceX will have won the race to be the first private company to put a person into space, narrowly beating rival Boeing’s Starliner, whose manned flight has been put back to next year following technical issues.
Musk has his eye set on privately funded missions to the Moon and eventually Mars, but this month’s low Earth orbit flight still marks the start of a new era in space travel.
Both the Dragon 2 and Starliner capsules have a superficial resemblance to the old pioneering ships of the 1960s, but are far more sophisticated.
As well as being reusable, they can carry up to seven crew, greatly expanding their commercial potential. Even the new generation of lightweight space suits look like something from science fiction.
For the US it spells the end of a slightly embarrassing and rather expensive nine years in which it has been forced to buy seats on Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft to maintain a presence on the ISS.
But the Summer of Space is much more than that, with the potential to enthral and inspire a new generation to the possibilities of space travel.
Next up is Al Amal, or Hope, the UAE’s Mission to Mars, due to leave the launchpad on July 15 on the start of an eight month, 56 million kilometre journey.
Built by Emirati scientists and engineers from the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre, Hope will explore the Martian atmosphere with an array of scientific instruments.
As the first Mars mission by an Arab and Muslim country, the name was chosen as an inspiration to the youth of the region, made more poignant by the circumstances of its launch.
Earlier this month, the probe completed its journey to the Tanegashima Space Center in Japan, where it will launch on top of a Mitsubishi H2A rocket.
This is a project which has kept going while coronavirus has ground much of the rest of the world to a halt. The launch must take place this summer in a narrow window when the distance between Mars and Earth shrinks from an average of 224 million kilometres, due to their differing orbits.
Any delay beyond that, and Hope, which is due to arrive in orbit in time for the UAE’s 50th anniversary next year, will have to wait until 2022, when the planets next draw close.
Joining Hope will be Perseverance, a Mars rover built by Nasa that is its most sophisticated so far, even carrying a tiny helicopter that will make the first powered flight on the Red Planet, if all goes well.
China is also sending its first mission to Mars, with Tianwen 1, or Heavenly Questions, a combined lander and orbiter also set for a July launch.
UAE's historic Mars probe to launch on July 15
These missions are only the curtain raiser to what should be a new era of space exploration. Boeing’s Starliner will likely also come into service next year, while SpaceX has an early celebrity customer in actor Tom Cruise who announced he will travel to the ISS to shoot scenes for his forthcoming film, possibly the next in the Mission Impossible series.
Next year, also look out for the launch of Artemis 1, a flight test of Nasa’s latest heavy lift rocket and successor to the mighty Saturn 5. The mission will take another new spacecraft, Orion, on a round trip to the Moon.
Unmanned this time, Orion and the Artemis programme is planned to return humans to the Moon by 2024, while SpaceX continues the development of its own deep space rocket, along with a lunar lander.
Around the same time, the first lunar space station, Gateway, is projected to welcome its first crew, part of sustained effort to create a permanent international Moon base.
For those who might not want to travel to deep space, but have deep pockets, another launch next year might be the solution.
The Aurora space station is a private development by a Californian company, Orion Span, to build a hotel in low Earth orbit.
The company claims it will launch the first module for the station in 2021, and welcome its first guests in 2022, with a 12-day stay priced at around US$9 million.
Earth may be in lockdown, but space is open for business.
Updated: May 29, 2020 02:04 PM