Fifty years since humans last walked on the moon, in 2022, NASA took one giant leap to returning.
The space agency closed out 2022 with a successful an uncrewed test flight of its Orion lunar capsule.
Astronauts last landed on the moon 50 years ago.
Orion was the first capsule to visit the moon since then, launching on NASA’s new mega moon rocket from Kennedy Space Center on November 16.
“We’ve been hearing about the promise of returning to the moon for 50 years, ever since the last Apollo mission back in (19)72,” says The AP’s Cape Canaveral correspondent Marcia Dunn.
“And so finally, NASA launched a capsule to the moon. No people on board, not yet. But now, it’s coming, they’re on track. And it looks like it’s really going to be happening soon.”
In July, the splendors of the universe glowed in a batch of new images released from NASA’s powerful James Webb Space Telescope.
With Webb, scientists hope to glimpse light from the first stars and galaxies that formed 13.7 billion years ago, just 100 million years from the universe-creating Big Bang.
The telescope also will scan the atmospheres of alien worlds for possible signs of life.
“Compared to the Hubble Space Telescope pictures, which were good back in the day, these just offer so much more detail,” says Dunn.
“Because the Webb looks in the infrared, it can see through clouds and dust. And the images were just spectacular.”
In late September, a spacecraft ploughed into a small, harmless asteroid millions of miles away, succeeding in shifting its orbit.
NASA attempted the test to see if in the future a killer rock could be nudged out of Earth’s way.
Before impact, the moonlet took 11 hours and 55 minutes to circle its parent asteroid.
Scientists had anticipated shaving ten minutes off, but NASA’s Administrator Bill Nelson said in October the impact shortened the asteroid’s orbit by 32 minutes.
“That’s part of a big overriding plan to maybe one day save the earth, so that when an incoming asteroid, if and when it does head our way, Earth can at least send a spacecraft to deflect the asteroid’s orbit,” explains Dunn.
Elon Musk’s SpaceX launched dozens of missions, most of them carrying satellites but a few with astronauts bound for the International Space Station.
The company easily surpassed its 2021 launch rate.
Dunn says the big news will be when the SpaceX launches Starship atop a Super Heavy booster from the southern tip of Texas, near the Mexican border.
At 394 feet (120 meters) and 17 million pounds (7.7 million kilograms) of liftoff thrust, it’s the biggest and most powerful rocket ever built.
NASA already has contracted for a Starship to land its astronauts on the moon in 2025 or so, in the first lunar touchdown since Apollo.
“This is going to be one gigantic monster of a rocket, bigger even than NASA’s moon rocket that just launched from here in November to send Orion to the moon,” says Dunn.
“Now, the first step is going to be a so-called baby step. Starship is going to actually try to get into orbit around Earth.
“Now, Musk keeps promising any day, any week, any month. So, we’ll see, but at this point, it looks like that should be happening sometime early in 2023.”
The first crew of Starship is expected to be a group of four space tourists, led by tech entrepreneur Jared Isaacman.
Polaris Dawn – as the mission is known – will be a three-day spaceflight that will orbit Earth and is expected to include the first-ever private spacewalk.
“These four are going to be not only orbiting the Earth sometime maybe in spring of (20)23, but actually one of them is actually going to conduct the first private spacewalk,” says Dunn, “so, that is going to be something.”
NASA has long wanted two competing U.S. companies ferrying astronauts to the ISS.
It’s an added insurance, as it drastically reduces its reliance on Russia for rides to and from the space station.
After a successful uncrewed Boeing Starliner test flight in May, it may soon get that wish.
And NASA astronauts could soon strap in for the next trip to the space station.
“SpaceX has been the main way for astronauts to get to the space station from the US,” explains Dunn.
“In (20)23, after several years, Boeing is finally going to be launching its Starliner capsule with its first crew to the space station. And that’ll be a really important test flight. And if it goes well, then that’s going to enable Boeing to join SpaceX and regularly bringing people to and from the space station here from the US.”
But don’t expect another Orion lunar mission in 2023.
NASA’s successful uncrewed test means it stays on course for the next Orion flight around the moon, targeted for 2024, with four astronauts.
That would be followed by a two-person lunar landing as early as 2025 and, ultimately, a sustainable moon base.
The long-term plan would be to launch a Mars expedition by the late 2030s.
Video courtesy of NASA, NASA/VIA ABC NEWS, SPACEX, SPACEX/POLARIS PROGRAM/JOHN KRAUS, JOHN KRAUS and THE BOEING COMPANY .