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2006 Year-In-Review: Aerospace

NASA Enjoys A Great Year... But It's Not The Only Game In Town Anymore

Make no mistake -- 2006 will go down as a significant year for the aerospace industry for two different, but equally important, reasons. It was the most successful year the National Aeronautic and Space Administration has had in years... but 2006 will also be remembered as the year commercial spaceflight took firm hold across the United States.

January

The Pentagon signs off on the United Launch Alliance, a joint-venture between rivals Boeing and Lockheed Martin. The merged operations still face tough anti-trust scrutiny... The Air Force Research Laboratory says it's hard at work developing a "flying dishwasher" that could repair other satellites in orbit... a capsule from NASA's Stardust deep space probe (right) returns successfully to Earth, with cometary and interstellar particles housed onboard... After several delays, NASA's New Horizons probe takes off, bound for Pluto... Closer to Earth, at least for now, the Rocket Racing League announces it will establish its world headquarters in Las Cruces, NM... Cost overruns keep NASA's Dawn spacecraft program grounded... ANN observes the 20th anniversary of the loss of the shuttle Challenger.

February

So weird and innovative that it HAS to be Russian, crews onboard the International Space Station release the first ever SuitSat -- a satellite constructed from an old Orlan space suit (below). It succeeds in broadcasting a very weak radio signal for approximately 36 hours... NASA says weak management may keep Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, OH from cashing in on projects associated with the agency's return to the moon... The New Mexico state legislature approves $110 million in funding to begin construction on Spaceport America near Truth or Consequences... NASA says it may ground the shuttle Atlantis in 2008, to provide parts for the other orbiters... Commercial space tourism company Space Adventures says it plans to build spaceports in Singapore, and the United Arab Emirates... In a display of truly cosmic timing, NASA unveils images of a cometary particle from the recent Stardust mission -- shaped like a heart -- scientists discovered on Valentine's Day.

March

NASA continues its streak of recent successes, as the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter fires its thrusters and establishes its initial orbit around the Red Planet... Upstart commercial space companies Rocketplane Limited, Inc. and Kistler Aerospace Corporation join forces. New name? Acme Consolidated Aerospace Incorporated -- just kidding, it's Rocketplane Kistler... The SpaceX Falcon 1 launch vehicle is destroyed moments after launch (shown below). The company says a small fuel leak was to blame... NASA changes its mind on the troubled Dawn spacecraft, and decides to fund the program after all... The Expedition 13 crew blasts off from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan aboard a Soyuz spacecraft, bound for the ISS... NASA investigates a pair of accidents involving preparations for launch of the shuttle Discovery. Workers accidentally dent the orbiter's remote arm, and a falling lamp causes indentations on the foam of the shuttle's external fuel tank... In an unrelated accident, a NASA worker falls to his death from the roof of a warehouse at Kennedy Space Center.

April

The MRO begins the first series of aerobraking maneuvers, that over the next six months will place the probe in its permanent orbit around Mars... the three-man Expedition 12 crew lands on the steppes of Kazakhstan... TravelZoo signs up its 10 millionth subscriber, who wins a trip onboard one of the first suborbital space flights... Zero-G Corporation reaches a deal with NASA that will allow the company to use the runway at Kennedy Space Center for its flights... The European Space Agency's Venus Explorer probe successfully enters orbit around the mysterious planet... NASA announces plans to send a probe to the moon to look for water in 2008... The Space Frontier Foundation announces a project to fly hundreds of teachers in space within the next few years... The aviation and aerospace community mourns the loss of acclaimed test pilot Scott Crossfield (shown at right), after his plane goes down in a severe thunderstorm over northern Georgia... Following NASA's lead, China announces its own plans to send probes to the moon... After six delays, the CloudSat and CALIPSO cloud-analyzing satellites launch from Vandenberg AFB in California.

May

Eileen Collins (below) -- who flew on four shuttle flights, and commanded the first Return to Flight mission in 2005 -- announces she is leaving the space agency... NASA and the X-Prize Foundation partner up for the $2.5 million Lunar Lander Challenge... SpaceShipOne designer Burt Rutan criticizes NASA for its return to past designs for its next-generation manned spacecraft... Students from five North Dakota colleges and universities join forces to design and test a proposed spacesuit for use on Mars... Despite widespread support from many in the aerospace community, former Kansas Cosmosphere operator Max Ary is sentenced to three years in prison on charges he stole artifacts from the museum, and sold them for his personal benefit... NASA reveals a summary of the reasons behind the failure of 2005's DART automated orbital rendezvous mission -- and there are several... In happier news, NASA extends the mission of a satellite studying Earth's middle and upper atmosphere by four years... X-Prize founder Dr. Peter H. Diamandis receives the first-ever Heinlein Prize, intended for those who make a significant contribution to commercial spaceflight... NASA decides to use less-expensive, modified Delta-IV rocket engines to power its next-generation Cargo Launch Vehicle, instead of a cheaper variant of the shuttle's main engine.

June

Ahead of the second Return-to-Flight mission for the space shuttle Discovery, NASA shuttle program manager Wayne Hale stresses the need for "continuous improvement" of the orbiter's systems, especially its problematic external fuel tank... NASA launches the 300-meter-long AESOP balloon from Sweden's Esrange Space Center, to measure the composition of cosmic ray electrons... NASA announces who will do what to get to the moon. All NASA centers receive slices of the moon pie, including Glenn Research Center... Famed test pilot Chuck Yeager sues his four children, claiming they deliberately underfunded his pension... USA Today reports money earmarked for NASA to send scientific probes to distant planets and return astronauts to the moon, may be used instead for projects closer to home that have little to nothing to do with exploring space... In related news, scientists criticize NASA for losing sight of its aeronautical research duties, in its quest to go to the moon... Auction site eBay runs an auction purporting to sell several Confederate flags flew into orbit aboard a 2004 mission to the International Space Station. Astronauts deny the Southern Cross ever rode with them, and the event is written off as a hoax... NASA names its next-generation booster (right) the "Ares." The name refers to the Greek God of War... known to the Romans as Mars.

July

A large asteroid whizzes by Earth at a distance just slightly farther out than the Moon -- the cosmic equivalent of a very near miss... NASA's proverbial Phoenix, the shuttle Discovery flies into orbit on the agency's second Return to Flight (RTF) mission. The flawless July 4 launch is overshadowed by North Korea's failed test of a ballistic missile... ANN reports on the odd "curse" of NASA's SLC-6 site in California, which was apparently "broken" by the successful June 28 launch of a rocket from the Vandenberg AFB facility... The Indian rocket program suffers two failed launches inside of 48 hours... After months of negotiations, NASA and the Russian Space Agency agree to a price for NASA astronauts hitching rides to the ISS aboard Soyuz space capsules... A Russian rocket carries the inflatable Genesis Pathfinder I spacecraft, developed by Bigelow Aerospace, into low orbit... Discovery returns to Earth following a successful two-week mission to the ISS (below). Oddly, some white streaks seen on the orbiter's wing during heat shield checks -- later found to be bird droppings -- survive the trip through Earth's atmosphere... Has NASA abandoned hope for its home planet? For the first time in four years, the agency's mission statement makes no mention of exploring Earth... During AirVenture 2006, a new space exhibit at the EAA Museum is unveiled. The centerpiece is a full-scale replica of SpaceShipOne.

August

NASA says its Ares I launch vehicle will use the same insulating foam that doomed the shuttle Columbia in 2003, but the booster's design makes it impossible to harm the crew vehicle riding on top... Astronaut John Glenn and his wife Annie are slightly injured in an Ohio car accident... Pluto sees its planetary status reduced to "dwarf" status... Astrophysicist James Van Allen, discoverer of the radiation "belts" that encircle Earth, passes away at age 91... NASA admits it can't find the original recordings of the 1969 moon landing -- but they're not "lost," per se... Engineers perform a tricky launch-pad repair mission inside the payload bay of shuttle Atlantis, replacing bolts holding a communications antenna... NASA awards the first contracts as part of its Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) Program, to SpaceX and Rocketplane Kistler... Astronaut Jeffrey Williams accidentally lets slip the name of NASA's new crew exploration vehicle while recording a broadcast onboard the ISS. Within hours, the whole world knows to call the CEV "Orion"... Speaking of Orion (above right), NASA announces Lockheed Martin will build the new space capsule.

September

After suffering four delays, an on-pad lightning strike, and an aborted rollback due to an approaching hurricane that later veered away from KSC, the shuttle Atlantis heads to the ISS... William "Captain Kirk" Shatner announces he has turned down a free ride into suborbital space, because he's afraid of not returning... Expedition 14 blasts off for the International Space Station, with an important passenger: Iranian-born entrepreneur Anousheh Ansari, the first female "space tourist"... A chemical leak onboard the ISS causes tense moments. The alarm is later traced back potassium hydroxide in the station's Elektron oxygen generation system... Atlantis returns safely to Earth, after a 24-hour delay to investigate debris seen floating near the orbiter. NASA later confirms one of the shuttle's heat exchange panels got "dinged" by space debris, or a micrometeoroid... The inaugural rocket flight from New Mexico's Spaceport America ends sooner than planned Monday, with the UP Aerospace rocket crashing in the desert far short of its planned 70-mile apogee in suborbital space... Sir Richard Branson unveils a mockup and drawings (below) of the upcoming "SpaceShipTwo" commercial space passenger vehicle.

October

An Australian computer programmer maintains Neil Armstrong's famous 1969 "One small step for man..." quote was, in fact, misquoted... United Launch Alliance clears anti-trust hurdles, setting the stage for the planned Boeing/Lockheed Martin joint venture... NASA launches a venture capital fund to invest in technology firms... China says it is looking to space tourism to help fund its space program... The second annual X Prize Cup gets underway in New Mexico, highlighted by the Lunar Lander Challenge. Alas, lone participant Armadillo Aerospace's entry fails to complete the required tests (below) -- but there's always next year... NASA's STEREO mission to investigate solar storms gets off to a spectacular start with a night launch from Cape Canaveral... A shuttle will fly to the Hubble Space Telescope before the program ends in 2010, NASA says. 

November

NASA reports all shuttle flights for 2007 will be delayed due to changes in the shuttle's external tank... Watchdog site NASAWatch.com publishes photos of snoozing workers at NASA's Huntsville, AL space center... After nearly 10 years of faithful service, NASA loses contact with the Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft (below)... Private space firm JP Aerospace completes two successful, near-space flights in one day... Blue Origin conducts its first highly secretive test flight in West Texas... Despite reports to the contrary, NASA says its Ares I launch vehicle has plenty of thrust to carry astronauts into orbit... The long-lasting Spirit and Opportunity Mars rovers get tossed a bone, as NASA approves funding for another six months... NASA says the shuttle Discovery will launch at night, the first nighttime shuttle launch since 2002.

December

NASA says the shuttle's external fuel tank won't be redesigned for 2008 after all, as the current tank has proven to be sufficiently durable... After operating a borrowed 727 for four years, Zero-G says it will lease its very own plane to conduct parabolic flights... NASA says it plans to establish a manned base on the moon by 2020... Images from the still-silent Mars Global Surveyor show evidence water may have flowed on the Martian surface in the past five years... For the second time this year, the shuttle Discovery heads to the ISS... NASA Administrator Michael Griffin justifies NASA's plans to return to the moon, calling the current focus on LEO missions a mistake... A Virginia spaceport launches its first rocket... After four spacewalks, astronauts succeed in fully retracting a stubborn solar array on the ISS... NASA and Google partner to bring realistic online maps of the lunar and Martian surface to websurfers...

FMI: www.aero-news.net

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