NASA welcomed a new administrator, Jim Bridenstine, deputy administrator, Jim Morhard, and chief financial officer, Jeff DeWit, in 2018. Their focus is on firmly establishing the groundwork to send Americans back to the Moon sustainably, with plans to use the agency’s lunar experience to prepare to send astronauts to Mars.
“Our agency’s accomplishments in 2018 are breathtaking. We’ve inspired the world and created incredible new capabilities for our nation,” Bridenstine said. “This year, we landed on Mars for the seventh time, and America remains the only country to have landed on Mars successfully. We created new U.S. commercial partnerships to land back on the Moon. We made breakthroughs in our quest to send humans farther into space than ever before. And, we contributed to remarkable advancements in aviation. I want to thank the entire NASA team for a fantastic year of American leadership in space, and I am confident we will build on our 2018 successes in 2019.
In 2018, NASA celebrated six decades of exploration, discoveries and cutting-edge technology development for the agency’s 60th anniversary on Oct. 1. Bridenstine said, “President Eisenhower launched our nation into the Space Age and President Kennedy gave us the charge to reach the Moon. Over six incredible decades, we have brought the world an amazing number of bold missions in science, aviation and human exploration. NASA and its workforce have never failed to raise the bar of human potential and blaze a trail to the future. We celebrate our legacy today with great promise and a strong direction from the President to return to the Moon and go on to Mars.”
The Office of the Chief Financial Officer received a successful clean audit in 2018 – the eighth consecutive clean financial audit opinion for the agency. In addition, DeWit led his Strategic Investments Division in working with the Government Accounting Office to pass an official Corrective Action Plan for only the second time in NASA’s history, which will increase accountability and transparency into the costs of large programs and proactively improve NASA’s program and project management activities.
On Dec. 11, NASA recently marked the one-year anniversary of Space Policy Directive-1 (SPD-1), which provided a directive for NASA to return humans to the surface of the moon for long-term exploration and utilization and pursue human exploration of Mars and the broader solar system. Two additional space policy directives were enacted this year by the White House, with SPD-2 in February helping ease the regulatory environment so entrepreneurs can thrive in space, and SPD-3 in June helping ensure the U.S. is a leader in providing a safe and secure environment as commercial and civil space traffic increases.
Moon to Mars
America’s return to the Moon will begin with U.S. commercial delivery services of small scientific instruments, followed by development of an infrastructure in orbit around the Moon to support human missions to the lunar surface, Mars and destinations beyond, for decades to come. Highlights from 2018 include:
- In October, NASA issued a call for lunar surface instruments and technology payloads that will fly to the Moon on commercial lunar landers as early as next year. On Nov. 29, the agency announced nine U.S. companies are eligible to bid on NASA delivery services to the lunar surface through Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) contracts.
- After receiving more than 190 scientific abstracts from the research community, NASA hosted a conference in February for scientists across a variety of disciplines to discuss future exploration and research using the Gateway, a spacecraft that will orbit the Moon and support human and robotic missions.
- In an effort to lay the foundation for partnerships with U.S. industry in several aspects of Gateway development and operation, NASA issued in 2018 several requests for information and ideas from U.S. companies about the Gateway’s use and supply, as well as lunar payload transportation capabilities, and construction of its power and propulsion element.
- NASA continued to refine requirements for a U.S. habitat module for the Gateway and technology to use and process space-based resources through the Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships-2 (NextSTEP-2).
The transportation system that will carry astronauts from Earth to the Gateway, and help build the structure in orbit, continued to take shape in 2018 with more flight hardware coming together around the country for the first launch of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and Orion spacecraft.
- NASA delivered the second piece of SLS flight hardware to its Kennedy Space Center in Floridaearlier this year. The Orion stage adapter will connect the spacecraft to SLS and will be loaded with 13 small satellites on the first mission.
- Engineers are completing final outfitting and assembly of the five major structural pieces of the SLS core stage at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans.
- Engineers at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, are putting the finishing touches on the 30-foot-tall launch vehicle stage adapter, which will connect SLS’ core stage to the interim cryogenic propulsion stage delivered to Kennedy last year.
- Engineers at Kennedy installed Orion’s reentry heat shield
- ESA (European Space Agency) delivered to Kennedy the service module that will propel, power and cool Orion during the first integrated flight test with SLS – Exploration Mission 1.
- Workers at Kennedy also completed construction on the main flame deflector at Launch Pad 39B, and engineers installed the final umbilical on the mobile launcher before rolling the massive tower on Crawler-Transporter 2 to the pad.
It was a great year for robotic exploration of Mars, as well:
- NASA’s Curiosity rover identified fragments of complex organic molecules in the shallow surface of Mars, giving us further evidence that the Red Planet could have hosted life at one point.
- NASA launched and landed the first spacecraft to set down on the Red Planet since Curiosity arrived in 2012 – the Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight). InSight touched down on Martian soil in November to study the planet’s interior and, just 10 days after landing, provided the first ever “sounds” of winds on Mars.
- NASA also announced the landing site for its next Red Planet rover, Mars 2020, which will continue the agency’s efforts to search for evidence of life and prepare for human arrival.
Other highlights in the agency’s progress this year in supporting the new Moon to Mars exploration approach include:
- More than 4,300 hours of testing completed on Solar Electric Propulsion (SEP) Hall thrusters.
- Orion pressure vessel for first crewed flight shipped to Kennedy.
- Final test of Orion’s parachute system.
- Preparation for test of Orion’s launch abort system.
- Several parts of SLS in production, or completed, for second mission.
- New series of SLS RS-25 engine test firings included nine tests of 3D-printed parts.
- First combination 3D printer and recycler launched to International Space Station to demonstrate new in-space manufacturing technology.
- NASA solicited new ways to manage trash on deep space missions.
- Ten companies chosen to conduct studies and advance technologies to collect and use space-based resources.
- 3D-Printed Habitat Challenge progressed as participating teams created digital models of Martian habitats and constructed and tested foundation prototypes.
Solar System and Beyond
In 2018, NASA bid farewell to two veteran science spacecraft, launched a record-breaking mission to the Sun, and continued to make discoveries with current missions and progress on future missions. Highlights from the year include:
- NASA’s Parker Solar Probe launched on the first-ever mission to “touch the Sun.” The mission broke records for fastest human-made object and closest approach to the Sun, and sent home its first light images – including a picture of Earth – in late October. Its first flight through the Sun’s outer atmosphere was on Nov. 7.
- After a two-year journey, NASA’s Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) mission arrived at its destination, the asteroid Bennu, on Dec. 3. One of the first observations from NASA’s first asteroid sample return mission revealed water locked inside the clays that make up Bennu.
- For only the second time in history, a human-made object reached the space between the stars. In December, NASA announced its Voyager 2 probe has exited the heliosphere – the protective bubble of particles and magnetic fields created by the Sun.
- Using NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope and ground-based observatories, astronomers found in June that Oumuamua, the first known interstellar object to travel through our solar system, had an unexpected speed boost and a change in trajectory. Scientists believe the object is a new type of comet.
- After nine years of searching for planets outside our solar system, NASA’s Kepler space telescope ran out of fuel, but not before scientists were able to use it, and Hubble, to find hints of what could be a moon orbiting another planet outside our solar system. If confirmed, this would be the first exomoon ever detected.
- NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), launched in April, continues the search for planets outside our solar system. The spacecraft, which began science operations in July, will survey the entire sky over the course of two years, searching for nearby exoplanets.
- NASA’s Dawn mission, which launched in 2007, also ran out of fuel this year, but not before becoming the first spacecraft to orbit two separate bodies in the solar system – the asteroid Vesta and dwarf planet Ceres. Among its many findings, Dawn helped scientists discover organics on Ceres and evidence that dwarf planets could have hosted oceans over a significant part of their history – and may still.
- The Independent Review Board established by NASA to assess progress on its James Webb Space Telescope unanimously recommended this year that development on the world’s premier science observatory should continue. NASA established a new 2021 launch date for Webb, and completed several critical tests and milestones in 2018, including vibration and acoustic tests and a simulation of the telescope’s complex communications. The two halves of Webb – the spacecraft and the telescope – were connected temporarily for a communications test during which they successfully “spoke” to each other.
- Newly analyzed data from NASA’s Galileo spacecraft, collected two decades ago, indicate the magnetic field around the moon Ganymede makes it unlike any other in the solar system.
Humans in Space
In 2018, NASA astronauts Mark Vande Hei, Scott Tingle, Serena Aunon-Chancellor and Anne McClainparticipated in their first spaceflight missions to the International Space Station, benefitting from the experience of three veteran astronauts Joe Acaba, Ricky Arnold, and Drew Feustel, who also completed missions aboard the space station this year. Here are ways humans in space were leading discovery and improving life on Earth in 2018:
- Crew members of Expeditions 54-58 supported more than 100 new U.S. science investigations, which use the unique orbiting laboratory to prepare for future missions to the Moon and Mars and improve life on Earth through research sponsored by the U.S. National Laboratory. In February, astronauts set a new record-setting week of research that surpassed 100 hours.
- Research conducted on station in 2018 included experiments to understand plants on Earth as well as plants growing in space, and new facilities that may help us to understand the materialsneeded for exploring the universe, the physiology of life in space and the basic elements of the universe itself.
- A testbed for technology, the space station now hosts the first combination 3D printer and recycler to demonstrate a new in-space manufacturing capability, Biomolecule Extraction and Sequencing Technology (BEST) to help identify microbes aboard the space station, and the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM).
- Nine U.S. astronauts were assigned to Commercial Crew Program missions aboard the Boeing Starliner and SpaceX Crew Dragon. Both companies have begun final testing of their spacecraft and associated systems, and the first test flights are expected in 2019.
- Expedition 56 astronauts installed new cameras on the station in June to provide enhanced views of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon as they approach and dock to the station.
- NASA astronaut Nick Hague and Russian cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin, who were forced to aborttheir planned mission to the orbital laboratory, were reassigned to the Expedition 59 mission, targeted to launch Feb. 28, 2019.
- Successful commercial partnerships with Northrop Grumman and SpaceX for cargo resupply resulted in five missions delivering more than 32,000 pounds of critical supplies to the International Space Station, while the SpaceX Dragon capsule also returned more than 7,800 pounds of investigations and equipment to researchers on Earth.
- NASA began operating a new space communications satellite to support more than 40 NASA missions in low-Earth orbit as well as astronauts living in space on the orbital laboratory, enabling it to continue communications support well into the next decade.
- NASA continued to update the space communication and navigation networks that support 83 missions, returning data from the solar system, and beyond, back to Earth. This includes upgrading emergency communications ground stations that support the space station and refurbishing its Bermuda Tracking Station, which supports launches from the agency’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, and will support launches of commercial crew to the space station and Orion/SLS missions to the Moon from Florida. The agency also issued a call for studies to explore designs that incorporate commercial elements into future space relay services.
- NASA selected 13 companies to study the future of commercial human spaceflight in low-Earth orbit, including long-range opportunities for the International Space Station.
- NASA and its space station partners marked the 20th anniversary of the launch and construction of the first elements of the International Space Station.
NASA’s aeronautics team reached several major milestones in 2018 in its efforts to enable commercial supersonic air travel over land.
- In April, the agency awarded Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Company a contract to build the Quiet Supersonic Technology (QueSST) aircraft, designated the X-59, which will demonstrate quiet supersonic flight over land. In July, NASA signed an agreement with its French counterpart to collaborate on research predicting where sonic booms will be heard as supersonic aircraft fly overhead.
- In October, an X-59 model was tested in a wind tunnel at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Virginia to collect data about the aircraft’s flight controls.
- In November, the X-59 project completed a rigorous review and the agency committed to the project’s funding and development timeline.
- Methods for measuring public perception of supersonic noise from the X-59 were tested over Galveston, Texas, using a NASA F/A-18 research jet.
Another major aeronautics focus was NASA’s ongoing work in Urban Air Mobility (UAM) – a safe and efficient system for passenger and cargo air transportation in and around urban areas.
- In May, NASA partnered with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and industry to demonstrate new Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Traffic Management (UTM) concepts that help maintain safe spacing between drones beyond visual line-of-sight.
- In June, NASA’s remotely-piloted Ikhana aircraft successfully flew in the National Airspace System without a safety chase aircraft, relying on NASA-developed technology and moving the United States one step closer to normalizing unmanned aircraft operations in the national airspace.
- In November, the agency announced plans for a UAM Grand Challenge.
Throughout the year, NASA continued several other avenues of research to advance aerial vehicle technology:
- Engineers used a test stand called AirVolt to test the cruise motors that will power NASA’s first fully electric X-plane, the X-57.
- The agency looked into how icing affects jet engines at high altitudes.
- NASA completed a series of Acoustic Research Measurement flights that combined several technologies to achieve a greater than 70 percent reduction in airframe noise.
- Researchers furthered the ability to fly safely with newly configured, highly flexible wings by flying the X-56 to collect data on wing flutter models and ways to suppress it.
- NASA’s work in 2018 to help modernize and improve the nation’s air traffic management system was highlighted by the transfer to the FAA of NASA technology developed so aircraft arriving at busy airports can be managed more efficiently.
Technology drives exploration and, in 2018, NASA’s investments in space technology continued to advance our capabilities for future exploration missions. New technology tests, demonstrations and partnerships helped solve complex challenges needed to land, live and explore the Moon and Mars.
- NASA and the Department of Energy demonstrated a new nuclear reactor power system that could provide surface power on the Moon and Mars.
- A team of NASA engineers demonstrated a technology first: fully autonomous X-ray navigation in space, which could revolutionize NASA’s ability to pilot robotic spacecraft to the far reaches of the solar system and beyond.
- NASA announced 10 new lunar focused Tipping Point partnerships with six U.S. companies.
- The Robotic Refueling Mission 3 launched to the space station aboard a SpaceX rocket. The technology demonstration will store and transfer super-cold cryogenic fluid in space, helping mature capabilities for robotic satellite servicing and refueling.
- The Integrated Solar Array and Reflectarray Antenna CubeSat mission advanced high-speed data downlink from space, a communications technology also used by two small satellites to relay InSight’s Mars landing data back to Earth.
- A small satellite achieved space-to-ground laser communications for the first time. The Optical Communication and Sensor Demonstration mission transmitted at a data rate of 100 megabits per second – 50 times greater than standard communications systems for spacecraft this size.
- NASA advanced additive manufacturing for rocket propulsion and successfully hot-fire tested a combustion chamber made using new 3D printing techniques.
- A team of engineers completed ground demonstrations of the autonomous capture portion of the Restore-L satellite servicing project.
- NASA’s three In-space Robotic Manufacturing and Assembly partners completed ground demonstrations of robotic arms, vision systems, additive techniques and other cutting-edge technologies to assemble structures in space.
- NASA’s Flight Opportunities program funded more than 40 payload flight demonstrations, providing opportunities for researchers to test new technologies and helping mature the suborbital flight industry.
- In September, the innovative heat shield technology, Adaptable Deployable Entry Placement Technology conducted a flight test.
- NASA awarded more than 550 small business contracts, totaling more than $180 million.