From Artemis to Webb, 2023 made aerospace history


An image of the galaxy NGC 7469 in the midst of star formation serves as this season’s “holiday card” from NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope. (ESA / Webb, NASA & CSA / L. Armus, A.S. Evans)

A few years from now, we just might look back at 2022 as Year One for a new age in aerospace: It was the year when NASA’s next-generation space telescope delivered the goods, when NASA’s moon rocket aced its first flight test, and when an all-electric passenger plane built from the ground up took to the skies.

I’ve been rounding up the top stories in space on an annual basis for 25 years now (starting with the Mars Pathfinder mission in 1997), and 2022 ranks among the biggest years when it comes to opening up new frontiers on the final frontier. The best thing about these frontier-opening stories — especially the James Webb Space Telescope and the Artemis moon program — is that the best is yet to come.

Here’s my top-five list for the big stories of the past year, plus five aerospace trends to watch in the year ahead:

Looking back at 2022

JWST delivers the goods: The Christmas Day launch of the James Webb Space Telescope was one of last year’s top stories — but the space telescope’s scientists didn’t start sharing their cosmic goodies with the rest of the world until July. The first presents to be opened included a new deep-field image that was jam-packed with distant galaxies and an updated view of the Pillars of Creation, the Hubble Space Telescope’s most iconic image.

And that was just the start: In December, astronomers gathered in Maryland to celebrate JWST’s first scientific results. We’re sure to see more marvels from the space telescope when the “Super Bowl of Astronomy” (a.k.a. the winter meeting of the American Astronomical Society) comes to Seattle in January.

“One thing I’ve found truly remarkable about JWST this past year is just how many people want to talk about it,” University of Washington astronomer James Davenport told me in an email. “Of course I knew every astronomer would be excited — these images of young stars and ancient galaxies are something we’ve only dreamed of until now — but almost every week I meet someone in the grocery store or the airport and they know about this mission! They’ve seen some of these iconic pictures and are moved.”

Davenport said that’s what he loves about astronomy, and about JWST: “It strikes a chord deep within, and brings us together in awe and wonder of the universe.”

DART hits an asteroid bull’s-eye: Davenport said his “surprise hit of the year” was a NASA mission that sent out a camera-equipped space probe to smash into an asteroid in September. The Double Asteroid Redirection Test was aimed at assessing how the impact, involving a spacecraft the size of a vending machine, would change the orbit of one asteroid around a larger one.

Scientists determined that the smash-up produced a larger-than-expected orbital change, in part because so much debris was blasted away from the target asteroid during impact. That boosted hopes that future probes might be able to help humanity dodge killer space rocks.

“At the UW’s DiRAC Institute, we’re building algorithms to map our solar system and search for asteroids that might threaten Earth,” Davenport said. “Seeing one of these objects up close, and in real time, was surreal! Watching the enormous plume form post-impact, and seeing just how much we’ve been able to nudge this mountain-sized pile of rubble, gives me a bit of hope that someday we could come together and actually save our planet.”

NASA’s moon rocket makes its debut: After years of delays and billions of dollars in cost overruns, NASA’s Space Launch System rocket lifted off for the first time in November, sending an uncrewed Orion capsule on what was apparently a picture-perfect test mission around the moon and back. Speaking of pictures, the cameras mounted on Orion’s solar arrays sent back jaw-dropping views of the moon and planet Earth that evoked the spirit of the Apollo era. (Orion splashed down on the 50th anniversary of the final Apollo moon landing, adding to the sense of history.)

The Artemis 1 mission blazed a trail for a crewed round-the-moon trek scheduled for 2024, followed by a lunar landing set for as soon as 2025. NASA is expected to name the crew for Artemis 2 in 2023.

Aerojet Rocketdyne’s facility in Redmond, Wash., played a significant supporting role in Artemis 1. Ken Young, general manager of the Redmond facility, told me in an emailed statement that he and his teammates “worked tirelessly for years to ensure the delivery of trusted, reliable propulsion for the Artemis 1 mission.”

Aerojet’s Redmond team supplied or supported mission-critical hardware including the jettison motor for Orion’s Launch Abort System, reaction control system thrusters for the crew module, auxiliary engines on the European-built service module, the Orion Main Engine and RCS thrusters on the SLS upper stage.

“We’re extremely proud of our Redmond team and the larger national coalition for the success of the Artemis 1 mission,” Young said. “As we like to say, the path back to the moon and on to Mars goes through Redmond.”

Eviation’s Alice airplane takes to the skies: Arlington, Wash.-based Eviation chalked up a milestone for zero-emission aviation in September when the company put its prototype all-electric Alice airplane through its first flight test at Grant County International Airport in Moses Lake, Wash. “What we have just done is made aviation history,” Greg Davis, Eviation’s president and CEO, said after the eight-minute flight.

It’s expected to take years for Alice (which takes its name from the Lewis Carroll classic “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and the Jefferson Airplane song “White Rabbit”) to go through its full test program and win certification from the Federal Aviation Administration. But Eviation says it already has booked orders adding up to more than $2 billion, with first deliveries set for 2027.

Boeing’s last 747 begins the long farewell: A different kind of aviation history was made in November when Boeing’s final 747 jumbo jet rolled off the production line in Everett, Wash. The cargo freighter still has to be painted and delivered to Atlas Air, which will operate the jet for a Swiss logistics company. But the late-night rollout marked the denouement of a story that began in Seattle back in the 1960s.

Kim Smith, Boeing’s vice president and general manager for 747 and 767 programs, hailed the 747 as a “magnificent airplane that truly changed the world.” Unfortunately for the 747, the world kept changing: Today’s passenger airlines favor smaller models ranging from the single-aisle 737 to the twin-aisle 767, 777, 787 Dreamliner and 777X.

Since the final 747 left the building, Boeing has had a jumbo dose of good news on other fronts — including huge orders for Dreamliners and 737 MAX planes from United Airlines and BOC Aviation.

Although this was the last rollout for the “Queen of the Skies,” 747s are likely to remain in service for decades to come, primarily as cargo planes. The next-generation Air Force One planes will also be 747s. Ironically, those planes are currently being retrofitted by the U.S. Air Force for presidential use after they were built for a now-defunct Russian airline.

Looking ahead to 2023

Will this be Blue Origin’s big year? Jeff Bezos’ space venture suffered a setback in September when an uncrewed New Shepard suborbital spaceship experienced a launch anomaly. Blue Origin says spacefliers would have survived the booster misfire; nevertheless, New Shepard flights have been suspended during the investigation. It seems likely that crewed flights will resume in 2023, but how will September’s mishap affect operations?

2023 is also expected to mark the first use of Blue Origin’s BE-4 rocket engines (initially, on United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan rocket) as well as the debut of Blue Origin’s orbital-class New Glenn rocket. We should also find out whether Blue Origin will have a role in building a second type of lunar lander for NASA, and whether the company’s plans for a commercial space station called Orbital Reef will move ahead.

Will Amazon launch Project Kuiper? United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan rocket also plays a key role in Amazon’s plans to build a satellite-based broadband network, known as Project Kuiper. Two prototype satellites are due to be deployed into low Earth orbit as secondary payloads for Vulcan’s first launch.

Right now, Project Kuiper is far behind SpaceX’s Starlink constellation. Successful deployment of the prototypes would show that Amazon is serious about its multibillion-dollar effort to put more than 3,000 satellites in orbit and provide global internet service (including access to Amazon Web Services). Kuiper’s rise is also likely to sharpen the debate over whether the benefits of having thousands more satellites zipping through the night sky outweigh the drawbacks.

Will Boeing’s Starliner fly right? Two and a half years after an initial uncrewed test flight went awry, Boeing’s Starliner space taxi hooked up with the International Space Station during a second uncrewed trial in May. Now Boeing is resolving the technical issues that were raised during the test, and targeting next April for Starliner’s first-ever crewed flight. Boeing is banking on a successful test mission, which would solidify Starliner’s standing as an alternative to SpaceX’s Crew Dragon space taxi. Having alternatives is essential, as illustrated by the current crisis involving a leaky Russian Soyuz capsule attached to the space station.

Will other commercial space missions level up? 2023 is expected to be a pivotal year for lots of other commercial space projects — including SpaceX’s Starship super-rocket, Relativity Space’s Terran 1 rocket and Stoke Space’s reusable rockets. Also on the agenda: Virgin Galactic’s resumption of suborbital space trips, privately funded orbital excursions organized by Axiom Space and the Polaris Program, and robotic lunar landings by the likes of iSpace, Astrobotic and Intuitive Machines.

Will eclipse mania return? We’re focusing here on 2023, but It’s not too early to start thinking about the total solar eclipse that will be visible along a narrow track stretching from Mexico to Maine on April 8, 2024. The event could attract as much attention as the “All-American Eclipse” of 2017, particularly because the track of totality comes relatively close to population centers in the U.S. Midwest and Northeast. For what it’s worth, I already have my reservation for an Airbnb near Austin, Texas.

To whet your appetite, you can take in an annular solar eclipse that will feature a “Ring of Fire” in locales ranging from Oregon to Texas and beyond on Oct. 14, 2023. If the weather cooperates, Seattleites can catch the show in Eugene and environs, just after 9 a.m. on that day. It’ll be the highlight of 2023’s skywatching schedule.


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