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It was the worst of times, it was the best of times

The year in space: For those dealing with matters beyond Earth, 2003 was the worst of times, and the best of times. MSNBC's Alan Boyle looks back and looks ahead.
Keegan Green, 8, is comforted by her mother Amy Green as they view debris believed to be from the space shuttle Columbia on a rural road in Texas on Feb. 3.Lm Otero / AP file

For those concerned with matters beyond Earth, the year 2003 was the worst of times. The tragic loss of the space shuttle Columbia plunged America's space effort into an unprecedented time of soul-searching. At the same time, the successes notched by China's orbital program and private space ventures recaptured the thrill of the early space race.

The best part is, things are sure to get better in 2004.

As in previous years, we offer five top stories from the year that is ending, and five themes for the year ahead. It's up to you to select which are the most important, using MSNBC's admittedly unscientific Live Vote at right. If you want to register a write-in vote, or simply sound off about the year in space, feel free to send an e-mail to Cosmic Log. A selection of your responses will be published in a future feedback file.

To refresh your memory, Mars dominated the voting a year ago: The scientific findings from NASA's Mars Odyssey orbiter and other Red Planet probes were judged the top story of 2002, and the launches of multiple Mars missions were considered the top trend to watch in 2003.

2003's top stories

A Delta II Heavy rocket lifts off from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Cape Canaveral, Fla., Monday, July 7, 2003. The rocket successfully launched the Mars rover Opportunity, scheduled to land on Mars January 2004. (AP Photo/Boeing)BOEING

took the spotlight again this summer, when NASA's twin rovers and the European Space Agency's Mars Express were sent on their months-long journeys to the Red Planet. The launches came as Mars made its closest approach to Earth in almost 60,000 years.

Meanwhile, Mars Odyssey and Mars Global Surveyor continued to transmit intriguing pictures and data about the mysterious Red Planet. In fact, Odyssey's readings of surface hydrogen hinted that there was even more frozen water than scientists previously thought.

The Mars Express orbiter and its piggyback lander, British-built Beagle 2, are due to touch down this week, but they probably won't be ready for scientific prime time until early 2004 — the same time frame expected for the NASA rovers' primary missions.

, like the Challenger explosion 17 years earlier, led to the loss of a space shuttle and the deaths of seven astronauts, and grounded the rest of the shuttle fleet.

You could argue that the Feb. 1 event wounded NASA even more deeply than Challenger: Back in the late 1980s, the sense was that NASA would get the problem fixed and stay the course. Another shuttle was built to replace Challenger. This time around, the entire infrastructure for  NASA's entire human spaceflight program was called into question, along with NASA's institutional culture.

There will be no replacement for Columbia; rather, NASA has committed itself to creating a new vehicle, the Orbital Space Plane — but the shape of things to come is not yet clear.

People read an extra edition newspaper featuring the picture of first Chinese astronaut Yang Liwei at a shopping street Thursday Oct. 16, 2003 in Beijing, China. China's first astronaut in space returned safely to earth on Thursday when his craft touched down on time and as planned after 21 hours in orbit. Beijing's mission control declared the country's landmark debut flight 'a success.' Newspaper headline sayAP

with Shenzhou 5 added a new player to the spaceflight stage. Admittedly, the nation's first human flight merely duplicated what Yuri Gagarin had done more than 40 years before, and it's not clear when the second flight might come. Nevertheless, the successful mission, which stood in sharp contrast to Japan's space failures, solidified China's status as East Asia's dominant power. It also emboldened officials in Beijing to speak of further great leaps forward, including space stations and moon missions.

The flight served to establish a bottom-end price for an orbital human spaceflight program, at more than $2 billion. Some observers voiced concern that China's military-tinged space program could pose a challenge to the United States, while others said they were more worried about China's satellite capability and what that might mean for America's space defenses.

A privately-funded spacecraft is shown as it flies upside down above Mojave, Calif., after it was unveiled Friday, April 18, 2003. Famed aircraft designer Burt Rutan on Friday unveiled the rocket-powered spacecraft he hopes will carry three people on a suborbital flight into space and win a $10 million prize pledged to the first privately financed effort to do so. (AP Photo/Jamie Rector)
A privately-funded spacecraft is shown as it flies upside down above Mojave, Calif., after it was unveiled Friday, April 18, 2003. Famed aircraft designer Burt Rutan on Friday unveiled the rocket-powered spacecraft he hopes will carry three people on a suborbital flight into space and win a $10 million prize pledged to the first privately financed effort to do so. (AP Photo/Jamie Rector)Jamie Rector / AP

faced grim prospects in the first part of 2003: Due to the grounding of the shuttle fleet, no millionaire passengers were flown to the space station, as they were in 2001 and 2002. Grand schemes to stage TV shows in space fell by the wayside. But on another front, much progress was made, capped by the supersonic flight of the privately funded SpaceShipOne craft, on the very centennial of the Wright brothers' historic flight.

During that same centennial week, the company that arranged those earlier multimillion-dollar flights, Virginia-based Space Adventures, said that two Americans had signed initial contracts for spaceflights in 2004 and 2005, and that there would be further opportunities through 2007.

The major development in the field — the winning of the X Prize for private spaceflight — will have to wait until 2004 (see below). But this year's turnaround represented a newsworthy reversal of fortunes.

were explored by a variety of spacecraft during the year. The Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe's new map of cosmic background radiation yielded the best evidence yet that mysterious "dark energy" dominates our universe, and it narrowed down estimates of the universe's age. The editors of the journal Science judged WMAP's findings to be the top scientific breakthrough of the year, and Discover magazine rated it No. 2, right behind the Columbia disaster.

As if that weren't enough, the Hubble Space Telescope and the Chandra X-Ray Observatory continued to send back glorious images, and yet another "Great Observatory" burst onto the scene: the Spitzer Space Telescope. 2003 also marked the passing of an old friend on the frontier: the Galileo spacecraft, which ended its 14-year mission by plunging into the atmosphere of Jupiter.

2004's top trends
If the trends to watch next year sound suspiciously like the themes of the past year, there's a reason for that: The big stories that began in 2003, or even earlier, are due for resolution in the 2004 sequel. Think of it like "Return of the King" following "The Two Towers."

Prime time for Mars: Will NASA's twin Mars missions be a spectacular success like 1997's Mars Pathfinder, or a spectacular twin failure like 1999's loss of Polar Lander and Climate Orbiter? Will the lowly Beagle 2 lander, equipped with a burrowing soil sampler known as the Mole, upstage the golfcart-sized rovers? The story starts unfolding on Christmas Eve, and this tale will grow in the telling over the next three months or more.

Back to NASA's future: For years, the space agency has been mulling over what the elder President Bush might call "the vision thing." When he had a chance to set the space agenda more than a decade ago, the result was a $450 billion plan that ended up going nowhere. Now the younger President Bush is preparing his own space agenda, which may point toward a return to the moon and further giant leaps. Will his plan fare any better? More fundamentally, will the space shuttles return to service during 2004? How will NASA's post-Columbia spaceflight program be different from the pre-Columbia era?

Saturn at last: After a flight of almost seven years, NASA's Cassini spacecraft is due to enter orbit around Saturn in July 2004. The orbiter's camera captured eye-popping snapshots of Jupiter during a millennium fly-by, and the views from the ringed planet promise to be unprecedented. But wait ... there's more: The European Huygens lander is piggybacking on Cassini and will be released on Christmas Eve 2004, to head down to Saturn's biggest and most mysterious moon, Titan. Will Huygens parachute through Titan's smoggy atmosphere to land in a hydrocarbon sea? We'll have to wait until 2005 for the climax, but in the meantime, the Cassini-Huygens tag team should make for must-see space science.

Breaking the space barrier: SpaceShipOne's progress and the less ballyhooed work of other rocket teams have led to the wide expectation that the $10 million X Prize will be won sometime in the next few months, ushering in the era of privately developed and funded space travel. But this is rocket science, after all: There are likely to be setbacks and surprises along the way, and if the X Prize is not won in 2004, that $10 million could disappear. Meanwhile, interest in passenger flights to the international space station is likely to rise again, if the space shuttles return to flight as hoped.

"Star Wars" sequel: President Bush wants to see the first test bed for a national missile defense system working by next fall, with facilities at Fort Greely, Alaska, and Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. So far, the shootdown tests have yielded mixed results. Skeptics say the system can't stay on budget and on schedule, and even when it's finished, a missile-capable adversary could defeat it. On other fronts, will America's spy-satellite assets play as prominent a role in the war on terrorism as they did in Iraq and Afghanistan? Is there any threat ahead that could lead to a "space Pearl Harbor"?

Those are the nominees: Now it's time to scroll back up to the Live Vote and voice your opinion. Don't be afraid to select "none of the above" and send in a write-in nomination.