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Space efforts build new momentum

Year in Space 2006: As the calendar flips from 2006 to 2007, America's push toward the final frontier has more momentum than it's had in years — thanks to some powerful assists from former rivals in Russia.

As the calendar flips from 2006 to 2007, America's push toward the final frontier has more momentum than it's had in years — thanks to some powerful assists from former rivals in Russia.

We're not just talking here about NASA's shuttle program, which is finally back on track after the loss of the shuttle Columbia in 2003. The Russian-American space axis also extends to the commercial space race, in realms ranging from space tourism to satellites and private-sector space stations.

Here are some prime examples:

  • Las Vegas-based Bigelow Aerospace’s first inflatable space module was launched into orbit on a converted Soviet SS-18 intercontinental ballistic missile, from a Russian military base.
  • After training at Russia’s cosmonaut complex, Iranian-American entrepreneur Anousheh Ansari took a $20 million ride to the international space station aboard a Russian rocket, in a deal brokered by Virginia-based Space Adventures.
  • Ansari’s venture-capital company and Space Adventures are also working with the Russians on a new suborbital spacecraft for passenger service from Singapore and the United Arab Emirates.
  • International Launch Services, a U.S.-Russian venture, is one of the main players in the worldwide launch market — alongside Europe’s Arianespace and United Launch Alliance, the newly approved Boeing-Lockheed Martin venture for U.S. government launches.

Speaking of government space programs, 2006 was the year that NASA settled into the "new normal" of the post-Columbia era. After re-redesigning the space shuttle's troublesome external fuel tank, the space agency executed three virtually trouble-free missions in less than six months — boosting confidence that it will be able to complete construction on the international space station and retire the shuttle fleet by 2010 as scheduled. Buoyed by success, NASA Administrator Mike Griffin even gave the go-ahead for an extra mission in 2008 to service the Hubble Space Telescope.

NASA also set the stage for the shuttle's successors during 2006, by awarding the contract for its Orion crew exploration vehicle to Lockheed Martin and promising almost $500 million to two entrepreneurial companies — SpaceX and Rocketplane Kistler — to support the development of new spacecraft for resupplying the space station.

After the Columbia tragedy, NASA had to rely almost totally upon Russian spacecraft for orbital deliveries. Now the shuttle fleet is once again taking the lead role in space station resupply, but at the same time, Russia is also beefing up its space effort.

Russia's rising role
NBC News space analyst James Oberg noted that Russia is planning to double the flight rate of its Soyuz spacecraft by 2009, and introduce an upgraded version by 2011. Oberg, who wrote a book on U.S.-Russian space cooperation titled "Star-Crossed Orbits," wrote in an e-mail that the Russians are also working to commercialize their space navigation services so that they'll be interoperable with the U.S. Global Positioning System and the European Galileo system.

"To permit this, they have changed Russian laws that previously made personal possession of accurate map locations an act of espionage," he said.

The Russians are reviving their own interplanetary ambitions as well.

"Dusting off old space science payloads that had languished in a budgetary purgatory since the late 1980s, Russia has approved new scientific missions to the moon and planets, has offered room on the probes to foreign scientists, and has reached agreements with the U.S. to place more Russian instruments aboard U.S. interplanetary missions," Oberg wrote.

Will NASA be able to keep up the pace in the years ahead? Will the White House's recently announced National Space Policy stir up trouble for the U.S.-Russian relationship? And what will happen after the shuttle's retirement in 2010? Will the Russians and the Europeans pick up the slack, or will NASA turn to SpaceX, Rocketplane Kistler and other private-sector providers? Will that entrepreneurial boost give a push to true private-sector spaceflight? The developments of the coming year may well provide the first hints of answers to those questions.

Beyond Earth orbit
There's plenty more to look forward to in 2007 — and to look back at from 2006. Beyond Earth orbit, space probes sent back intriguing data about Mars as well as Enceladus, a mysterious moon of Saturn. NASA's Stardust probe returned to Earth in January, bearing a precious cargo of comet specks and interstellar dust. It was another great year for finding alien worlds beyond our solar system.

Meanwhile, Pluto had a good-news, bad-news year. The good news? In January, NASA's New Horizons probe blasted off for the ninth planet. And the bad news? In August, a vote by the International Astronomical Union determined that Pluto was no longer officially the ninth planet.

And speaking of voting ... we're asking you to help us rank the top space stories of the past year as well as the top trends for the year ahead. (To refresh your memory, here are the roundups for 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004 and 2005.)

For this 10th annual "Year in Space" roundup, we've listed five candidates in each category. Click on over to our unscientific Live Vote to register your top picks, send your write-in votes to the Cosmic Log mailbox, and stay tuned for an update after the first of the year.

Top stories of 2006

  • NASA back on track: The shuttle fleet gets back on schedule. NASA selects contractors for its next-generation spaceship as well as private-sector orbital services, and unveils its moonbase strategy.
  • Private-sector highs (and lows): Bigelow launches a precursor for commercial space stations. Anousheh Ansari visits the space station. Armadillo Aerospace and space elevator fans put on a good show at the X Prize Cup, even if they fall short of winning NASA prizes.
  • To be or not to be a planet: New Horizons blasts off for Pluto and beyond. Astronomers consider adding to the solar system's list of planets — but instead, Pluto ends up being left out in the cold. The debate goes on.
  • Signs of alien water: Ice geysers are discovered spraying up from a Saturnian moon. Mars probes find more evidence for liquid water. Could such environments provide a home for life? Stay tuned.
  • Endurance at Mars: NASA's Mars rovers last an amazing 1,000 Martian days and seem certain to mark their third Earth year of operation on the Red Planet. After 10 years of service, the orbiting Mars Global Surveyor just fades away. But another probe, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, enters the fray.
  • Other contenders: In addition to the Stardust homecoming and the oodles of extrasolar-planet finds, there was November's transit of Mercury as well as March's total solar eclipse, the SMART-1 lunar crash and asteroid observations from Japan's Hayabusa probe.  

Top trends for 2007

  • Rocket reality check: "Astropreneurs" ranging from Bigelow Aerospace to SpaceX, Rocketplane Kistler and Virgin Galactic will be facing acid tests. SpaceX will be trying for its first successful launch — and later in the year, Virgin Galactic's manufacturer, California-based Scaled Composites, is due to roll out its SpaceShipTwo rocket plane under the direction of aerospace maverick Burt Rutan.
  • Lab time in orbit: NASA's agenda for the space station gets more ambitious as the year rolls on, with the delivery of European and Japanese orbital laboratories beginning in late 2007. Software executive Charles Simonyi, "first nerd in space," is scheduled to visit the station in the spring.
  • Mars Phoenix rising: NASA is due to launch its Mars Phoenix lander in August, heading for a touchdown in the Red Planet's north polar region in 2008.
  • Target: Moon: Three lunar orbiters could be launched during 2007, not by NASA or the Russians, but by the world's up-and-coming space powers. India is planning Chandrayaan 1, China is working on Chang'e 1, and Japan has SELENE. Consider them among the first small steps in an international moon rush.
  • Sputnik plus 50: 2007 marks the 50th anniversary of the space race between the world's first two space powers, the United States and the then-Soviet Union. Expect lots of commemorations — and yet another look back at the U.S.-Russian relationship in space.