Image: Discovery launch
Scott Audette  /  AP file
The space shuttle Discovery lifts off from Launch Pad 39B at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on July 26, 2005. The euphoria that surrounded the launch soon gave way to fresh concerns about the shuttle flight's future.
By Alan Boyle Science editor
msnbc.com
updated 12/22/2005 1:15:44 PM ET 2005-12-22T18:15:44

The year 2005 was supposed to mark NASA's return to reliable spaceflight and the center of the space spotlight.

But when historians look back, decades from now, they just might see it instead as the year the space agency made room for startups in the space race.

It's not clear how many of those startups will survive the next year, let alone the next decade. But NASA's new commercial initiatives — such as the Centennial Challenges and the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services Demonstrations — add to other signs that a private-sector spaceship industry is taking root. Such small steps could lead to giant commercial leaps in the years to come.

On the final frontier, 2005 was a year for following through on unfinished business, or laying the groundwork for the future. NASA's ups and downs served to illustrate both trends: The shuttle Discovery's launch in July returned America to the human spaceflight game in a big way, more than two years after the Columbia tragedy. But the continuing problems with flyaway fuel-tank foam immediately led to the suspension of further shuttle flights — a situation that won't be resolved until 2006.

2006 should also reveal whether NASA is truly serious about its initiatives to encourage private-sector space. Rick Tumlinson, one of the founders of the Space Frontier Foundation and a frequent critic of the space agency, worries that the relatively small-scale commercial programs will lose out in a budget battle with the shuttle program as well as the multibillion-dollar effort to develop a shuttle replacement known as the Crew Exploration Vehicle .

"Let's be real," he told MSNBC.com. "There's really only one ball in the air, and then there are some scraps on the floor. The one ball in the air is the Crew Exploration Vehicle, and the scraps are what's left for those of us who are working to open the frontier."

Another skeptic, space consultant Charles Lurio, says space entrepreneurs will have to focus on private investment rather than public programs in the years ahead.

The year after SpaceShipOne won the $10 million X Prize for private spaceflight has been "a period of consolidation and modest expansion upon the base that was created in the previous year," Lurio said. The X Prize Cup got off the ground in New Mexico, showcasing rocket technologies that might bring paying passengers to space in future years. Virgin Galactic also picked New Mexico for a spaceport site that is to be built with $225 million in taxpayer funds.

Several other companies — including Rocketplane , Blue Origin , PlanetSpace , Interorbital Systems , SpaceDev and Aera Space (a.k.a. Sprague Astronautics) — laid plans to capitalize on the space tourism market and perhaps even beat Virgin Galactic to market.  But the savviest business move of the year, at least in Tumlinson's opinion, was XCOR Aerospace's linkup with the Rocket Racing League .

"The ability to capitalize on the opportunity and create a synergy, and the rapid in-the-field maneuvering, was a strategic exercise as brilliant as anything that [X Prize founder] Peter Diamandis has done," Tumlinson said.

For space entrepreneurs and their followers, one of the year's biggest disappointments was SpaceX's double postponement of the Falcon 1 rocket's maiden launch. That low-cost, high-hopes liftoff will have to wait until 2006 — but SpaceX's millionaire backer, Elon Musk, is unfazed. "Third time's the charm," he told his fans.

NASA's return to flight and the commercial space dreams were just two of the highlights in this year's news of the universe. Here are other offerings from the past year's outer-space smorgasbord. Cast your ballot for the top story using our Live Vote — and if you like, send a write-in vote to Cosmic Log.

Titan touchdown and Saturnian sights: After a cruise of more than seven years, the European-built Huygens probe plunged through the obscuring atmosphere of Titan in January and sent back stunning images that didn't quite fit scientists' expectations . Even today, the Cassini orbiter that gave the lander its ride to the Saturnian system is going strong, adding to our store of knowledge about Saturn, its rings and its moons.

Martian marathon:NASA's twin rovers Spirit and Opportunity finished their first Earth year on the job in January, passed their Martian-year milestone a few weeks ago and seem certain to survive past their second Earth-birthday. That's an amazing achievement for robots that came with a warranty of just 90 days. The debate over past and present life on Mars continued, focusing on methane as well as geological evidence .

Close cosmic encounters: In July, NASA's Deep Impact probe made a direct hit on Comet Tempel 1 — which provided fresh data about the composition of comet nuclei and their tails, as well as a heck of a fireworks show. The results from Japan's Hayabusa probe touching down on the asteroid Itokawa in November are less clear, and we may not know until 2010 how successful the mission turned out to be. On other fronts, the discovery of the so-called "10th planet" struck up a debate in July, as did the hand-wringing over the potential for a collision with the asteroid Apophis in a couple of decades.

Other contenders: In April, scientists analyzing a high-energy brew of subatomic particles known as "Big Bang soup" concluded that the primordial stuff of the universe actually had the properties of a liquid . A rare hybrid solar eclipse in April was followed by an annular "ring of fire" eclipse in October. Also in October, China sent up its second human space mission , putting two men into orbit for a five-day trip — and leaving behind an orbital module that is still circling Earth. Meanwhile, the first event in NASA's Centennial Challenges program tested technologies that could be used on a "space elevator," but nobody won the prize ... this time.

Stardust returns
After snaring some dust from Comet Wild 2, NASA's Stardust spacecraft is due to drop off its sample capsule for return to Earth next month. If everything works out as planned, Westerners just might see Stardust's fireball light up the skies as it plunges down to a midair catch over the Utah desert. Because Comet Wild 2 is thought to be composed of cosmic leftovers from the solar system's creation, Stardust's samples could reveal new clues as to the origins of our own planet and perhaps the chemical precursors of life itself.

Everything may not work out as planned, however: In fact, a similar sample-return probe called Genesis crash-landed when its parachute failed to open back in September 2004. The delicate device that collected solar-wind particles was shattered to pieces. Fortunately, scientists were able to salvage much of the science, and they say the Stardust probe is better-designed to withstand a hard landing. Nevertheless, that earlier crash will add to the suspense for Stardust's fall.

Six-pack for Mars
In March, NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is due to start orbiting the Red Planet. It will take months for the spacecraft to adjust its orbit for conducting science, but even in the early phases of the mission, we could see Red Planet imagery in unprecedented detail. The MRO is designed to study the distribution of Martian water in all its forms, as well as the planet's geological features and mineral composition. The orbiter joins five other probes currently in operation on or over the Red Planet: NASA's two Mars rovers, Mars Global Surveyor, Mars Odyssey and Europe's Mars Express. How long will the Spirit and Opportunity rovers keep going? Is there such a thing as too much information from Mars?

Close-up for Venus
In April, it's Europe's turn in the space spotlight, with the arrival of the Venus Express orbiter. This probe, a close relative of the Mars Express in engineering terms, will beam back the first data in a decade from our solar system's ultimate greenhouse-gas planet. Venus Express' main job is to study the Venusian temperature and atmosphere, perhaps coming up with data that will figure in the climate change controversy surrounding our own planet. After all, it was the late astronomer Carl Sagan's study of Venus that helped spur the "greenhouse effect" hypothesis in the first place.

Return to return to flight
The shuttle Discovery is due to lift off in May or later on a test flight to the space station, and if the previous mission is any indicator, there could well be some schedule slips and surprises along the way. The bigger issue is whether the shuttle fleet will be funded and flightworthy for long enough to complete all the construction that NASA wants to do on the space station. At the same time, NASA will have to make a series of decisions on the shape of the Crew Exploration Vehicle program as well as the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program. Will the space agency be able to flesh out its vision for going to the moon and beyond, as well as servicing the space station as promised?

Rocket reality check
NASA isn't the only space venture facing a reality check. If Virgin Galactic and its competitors are going to get off the ground by 2008, they'll have to pass some concrete tests in the next year. The companies that can't rely on Virgin Group tycoon Richard Branson's money will have to prove they have the financial wherewithal to survive. And New Mexico will have to follow through on its plans for that $225 million spaceport. October is shaping up as a key deadline: That's when the Rocket Racing League is due to conduct its first-ever rocketplane races, and when space entrepreneurs are due to show their stuff at the first honest-to-goodness X Prize Cup.

Other contenders
NASA will launch New Horizons , its first-ever Pluto probe, in January. A total solar eclipse will be seen over a wide stretch of Africa and Asia in March. Skywatchers will be hoping for a better-than-usual Leonid meteor shower in November. Mercury is on track to make a transit of the sun in November. And what about Hubble? Time is running out to decide the fate of NASA's most famous space telescope .

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