An artist's rendition of NASA's Juno spacecraft at Jupiter. Source: NASA

We Should Be Excited About the Next Five Years of Space Exploration. Here’s What’s Coming.


It should be hard for anyone with a sense of adventure and an optimism for the future to not be excited about the exploration of outer space. With every new mission into space comes the prospect for surprising and thrilling discoveries that serve to expand our knowledge of the mysterious universe in which we live. Every new mission reflects the development of our technology, represents the pushing of frontiers, and demonstrates the growth of humanity’s foothold in space. With every new mission, we move a little bit closer to achieving our future among the stars. The exploration of outer space is perhaps one of the most daring, challenging, and exhilarating ventures our species has ever undertaken. So, naturally, we should already be excited about our prospects for space. But, looking forward five years from July 2015, the close-future of space exploration promises to be of great significance… and of even greater excitement than we see today.

Having carried out the first lunar landing in 37 years, China's Chang'e 3 lander rests upon the Moon. Source:
Having carried out the first lunar landing in 37 years in late 2013, China’s Chang’e 3 lander rests upon the Moon. Source:

How so? After all, the last few years of space exploration have seen a number of incredible achievements; to such a degree, indeed, that we could see it as one of the most thrilling periods of space exploration since the height of the “Space Race.” To name a few of these achievements: in 2012, NASA’s Curiosity Rover began a new era of robotic exploration on Mars and has since unlocked a number of secrets about the “Red Planet’s” wet, perhaps even habitable, past. The Commercial Cargo program began deliveries of cargo and supplies to the International Space Station by private companies in 2012. China’s hastily developing space program pulled off a major feat by delivering a rover and lander upon the Moon in late 2013 with its Chang’e 3 mission. This marked the first landing upon the Moon since the Soviet Union’s Luna 24 mission in 1976, and was perhaps China’s most ambitious space project to date. Meanwhile, India became the first Asian power to reach Mars, and the first country to do so on its first attempt, when it successfully launched and placed into Martian orbit its Mars Orbiter Mission spacecraft in 2014. NASA’s Dawn spacecraft, which visited Vesta – an asteroid belt proto-planet – in 2011 and the dwarf world Ceres in 2015, became the first craft to explore two extraterrestrial bodies in one mission and the first to arrive at a dwarf planet. In 2014, the European Space Agency’s Rosetta mission became the first to conduct a landing upon a comet when its Philae lander touched down upon the surface of Comet 67P. Finally, the secrets of Pluto were revealed when the New Horizons spacecraft made the first-ever flyby of that distant world in July, 2015.

The dwarf world Ceres' mysterious bright spots, discovered by NASA"s Dawn spacecraft in 2015. Credit: NASA
The dwarf world Ceres’ mysterious bright spots, discovered by NASA”s Dawn spacecraft in 2015. Source: NASA

Obviously, a lot of exciting activity has taken place in space over the past couple of years. Major “firsts” were achieved, significant new discoveries and insights were acquired, and important new players entered the realm of space exploration. To be sure, these accomplishments are incredible and important by their merits alone. But, significantly, they appear to represent an increasing energy and enthusiasm for space exploration and activity that looks likely to continue into the coming few years. Indeed, looking ahead to the next few years, we can see some continuing trends: a hastening of pace and ambition by upcoming space powers, major new missions to previously unexplored or under-explored places, and the continuing development of the private space industry. Meanwhile, a number of exciting missions to the more frequently-visited worlds still promise to provide answers and new insights for astronomers’ and scientists’ remaining questions.

It should be remembered, of course, that plans and policy are always beholden to economic conditions and political circumstances. Design problems and budget issues often threaten the timeline or feasibility of future missions. It should be expected that not every mission in this list will be launched on its current proposed date or with the characteristics that are currently proposed. Yet nonetheless, with so much on the timeline for the next few years, it would be surprising if none of it came to fruition. And, with much of what is proposed over the next few years being of major significance or scope, the future of space should be, even with some cut missions or revisions of schedules, incredible promising. As such, we should be excited about the coming years of space exploration. Here’s why:

Close to Home

The missions which tend to grab the attention of the public and the scientific community most often are those to distant planets and deep into the Solar System. Perhaps this is because these types of missions most evidently push the frontiers of discovery and exploration. Yet it is closer to home, in low-Earth-orbit or at the Moon, that the bulk of humanity’s activity in outer space takes place. It is close to home, too, where the future of human spaceflight will necessarily be developed. Only through the building-up of our local space infrastructure and through the nearby testing of spacecraft and technologies will we create the capabilities needed to take more humans deeper into space. Such is one reason why the next few years of activity will be so exciting – much of it will take place near the Earth, and much of it will build the foundation for a heightened human presence in space.

Commercial Cargo Ramps Up and Commercial Crew Goes Full Swing

As discussed in an earlier post, NASA’s Commercial Crew and Cargo programs represent a crucial policy and paradigm shift for the American space program. By contracting private industry to carry out cargo resupply and crew ferrying missions in low-Earth-orbit, NASA can focus its energy on the exploration of deeper space, can foster the domestic commercial space industry, and can divest from a reliance on Russia for access to the International Space Station. In all likelihood, the commercial programs are harbingers of a new era of activity in space – one in which public exploration efforts combine with private commercial markets to allow easier, cheaper, and more innovative access to space.

SpaceX's Dragon V2 spacecraft, designed to carry astronauts to the ISS. Credit: SpaceX
SpaceX’s Dragon V2 spacecraft, designed to carry astronauts to the ISS as a part of the Commercial Crew Program. Source: SpaceX

The Commercial Cargo Program is already running today, with SpaceX and Orbital ATK sending their respective Dragon and Cygnus spacecraft on resupply runs to the ISS. The current round of contracts (known as CRS-1) is expected to run through 2016, while a second round of contracts (CRS-2), to be awarded this year, should extend the commercial cargo program through 2024. Needless to say, then, the space industry should expect to see considerable levels of government support and funding – and hopefully considerable development as a result – for at least the next decade. What’s also promising is that the competition for CRS-2 contracts will be open to a host of a private space companies not awarded contracts under CRS-1. Among the companies that have issued proposals for this second round are SpaceX and Orbital ATK along with Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Sierra Nevada. Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser, a winged lifting-body spacecraft which failed to win a spot among the CRS-1 contracts, has already undergone considerable amounts of testing and technology demonstration. Meanwhile, Boeing hopes to convert its CST-100 spacecraft, designed to ferry astronauts for the Commercial Crew program, into a cargo-resupply platform. While the eventual awardees for CRS-2 remain to be seen, it is a promising sign for the future of the commercial space industry that such a large pool of companies are in the running.

Cargo missions to the International Space Station are doubtlessly crucial, but starting in 2017, the commercial program will take on an element of added importance – astronauts. SpaceX, using its Dragon V2 spacecraft, is scheduled to make a manned test flight in April of 2017, followed by Boeing’s CST-100 in July of 2017. The first scheduled crew mission to the ISS is set for sometime in late 2017. Already, NASA has selected the first crew members, an assortment of some of the astronaut corps’s best, to be carried aboard these private spacecraft to the International Space Station.

CGI-imagery of Boeing's CST-100 spacecraft, also designed to carry astronauts to the ISS. Credit: Boeing
CGI-imagery of Boeing’s CST-100 spacecraft, also designed to carry astronauts to the ISS. Source: Boeing

The future of NASA’s commercial programs may be under threat from budget reductions in Congress, but, by and large, the agency and a number of high-profile leaders remain vocally committed to continuation and the development of the program. Considering the extent of money and time that NASA has dumped into the private space industry, and keeping in mind that NASA’s exploration road-map and future plans are contingent upon the success of commercial deliveries to the International Space Station, it would be quite a surprise if commercial crew and cargo didn’t become a mainstay of the low-Earth-orbit space infrastructure. And, with private spaceflight taking off over the next few years, we can hope to expect even greater developments in space – space tourism, asteroid mining, orbital hotels and outposts, private moon landings… the list goes on and on.

NASA Takes a Trip Around the Moon

NASA has ambitious plans to launch American astronauts on an exploration mission to Mars by the close of the 2030s. To achieve that aim, the agency has already begun the development of a beyond-Earth-orbit spacecraft, Orion, and a rocket larger than the iconic Saturn V, the SLS, to carry it there. These are likely to be the vehicles that will conduct any manned mission beyond the Earth’s neighborhood. But, as should be expected, these technologies will need to be put through rigorous testing in order to ensure astronaut safety and mission success. A part of this testing process will be sending these spacecraft into space, exposing them to the conditions and variables expected during a mission to Mars. That’s where NASA’s Exploration Mission 1 comes in.

The current mission plan for NASA's Exploration Mission 1 in 2018. Credit: NASASpaceFlight
The current mission plan for NASA’s Exploration Mission 1 in 2018. Source: NASASpaceFlight

Sometime in late September, 2018, NASA will launch its Orion spacecraft atop a scaled-down version of the SLS on a trajectory that will take it around the Moon and back. During the 7 to 10 day long mission, the uncrewed spacecraft will go the furthest into space that a human-rated spacecraft has ever traveled, circling around the Moon 30,000 miles farther than Apollo 13, the previous record-holder. The mission will also be the first time since 1972, when Apollo 17, the last of the Apollo missions, set down on the Moon, that a human-rated spacecraft has traveled beyond low-Earth-orbit. Needless to say, Exploration Mission 1 will be the precursor to some bigger, better, and more exciting human missions to come.

Among the technologies being tested during this mission are the spacecraft’s life-support capabilities, which will need to last for months during an extended mission to Mars, and the spacecraft’s heat shielding. Orion’s trajectory around the Moon will be such that it will experience incredibly intense forces during re-entry back to the Earth, as will also be expected during a return from a mission to Mars. While the spacecraft will be pushed to the brink during this mission, if all of its systems manage to check out perfectly, NASA will be one step closer to its current endgame goal: landing humans on Mars. In the nearer future, if EM-1 goes to plan, the agency will also be better poised to carry out Exploration Mission 2. Tentatively, this involves a human mission in 2021 to a captured asteroid placed into orbit around the Moon. Doubtlessly, if EM-2 is carried out as planned, it will be the most ambitious and remarkable human mission in space since the Moon landings half a century ago.

China Builds a Space Station

Emblematic of the People’s Republic of China’s rapid rise to prominence on the world stage, the Chinese space program has undergone considerable and equally rapid g3xrowth and development over the past decade. Indeed, the Chinese program, being at a stage of development and application roughly akin to the United States’ Apollo era, is an excellent case-study in the strategic and rhetorical importance of a space program for emerging powers. The Chinese government has evidently calculated that maintaining an active space program, especially with human flight, will help fulfill its domestic and international goals in the coming decades. Such is why, in the past decade and a half, China has succeeded in becoming the third country to send humans into space, has carried out sophisticated in-space maneuvers, built a prototype space station, and begun an ambitious lunar exploration program. Barring an economic collapse or some unforeseen disaster, it is unlikely that this pace of development will slow in the coming years.

Chinese astronauts aboard the Tiangong 1 space station. Source: xinhuanet

In fact, it is in these coming years that China plans to pull off its largest feat in space yet – the construction of a significant modular space station. The Chinese quest to construct a space station has been years in the running – in 2012, China launched Tiangong 1, a prototype station designed to test relevant technologies and capabilities. With an interior habitable volume of only 15 cubic meters and enough room for two sleeping bunks and exercise gear, the station is small. Nonetheless, it has allowed the Chinese to practice crucial skills such as manual and automatic docking and undocking, and has proven China’s ability to maintain an orbital outpost. Tiangong 1 was the target of two visits by astronauts, the first by the Shenzhou 9 mission in 2012 and the second a 15-day stay by Shenzhou 10 in 2013.

Tiangong 1 is to be followed in 2016 by Tiangong 2, a slightly larger station of similar design. Sometime after Tiangong 2’s launch, the next planned manned  mission, Shenzhou  11, will make a stay at the station. Tiangong 2 will also be visited by the Tianzhou spacecraft, an automated resupply vessel derived from the Tiangong design. This will be China’s first experiment with cargo supply crafts, which are, as the past and present automated resupply missions to the International Space Station have proven, crucial for the maintenance of a large scale, long-term space station.

A Chinese engineering concept drawing of the finished Chinese modular space station. Source: Spacenews

Then, at some point between 2018 and 2020, China will launch Tiangong 3, the base component to its large, modular space station. When combined with two laboratory modules, which will be launched between 2020 and 2023, the station will allow three-member crews an extended stay of up to six months. To support the Chinese space program’s scientific mission, the station will include space for multiple experiments, an external exposure platform, and equipment for Earth and astronomical observation. With multiple docking ports, simultaneous resupply and crew visits to the station will be able to take place. Should construction go according to plan, the station is expected to stay in orbit until at least 2032.

The construction of the Chinese space station should be seen as reflective of China’s long-term ambitions for human spaceflight. Maintaining a human presence in space marks China as among the United States and Russia as a leading space power. Once China finishes its completion, it will become the second country, behind Russia, to independently build a modular space station. Not even the United States, which has had Russian and other international support in constructing the International Space Station, has done that.

China, Japan, and India Race to the Moon

A new “space race” is budding in Asia as a number of developing space powers set their eyes on ever more ambitious plans for their programs. For India, China, and Japan, which all have space programs with varying levels of capability but which are all rapidly accelerating in development, the Moon offers an excellent target for the next steps into space. After all, the Moon allows for the testing and application of a wide range of space activity – extraterrestrial landings and orbits, surface operations, and sample returns, to name a few – and is close enough to Earth to be more easily reached by a developing space program. With each of these countries trying to out-compete the others in the realm of space, so as to enjoy the benefits of geopolitical prestige back on Earth, and with China having already carried out a successful lunar landing in 2013, India and Japan have accelerated their plans for the Moon. Hoping to stay ahead of the competition, China too has begun work on an ambitious plan for lunar activity in the coming years. The stage has therefore been set for an exciting new era of lunar exploration.

An artist's rendition of Japan's SLIM spacecraft landing upon the Moon. Credit: JAXA
An artist’s rendition of Japan’s SLIM spacecraft landing upon the Moon. Source: JAXA

Japan has once before reached the Moon, having placed its Selene spacecraft into lunar orbit in 2007. Yet, with China placing its rover on the Moon in 2013 and  India pulling off a mission to Mars in 2014, Japan is now in the position of having to play catch-up to reassert its leadership as an Asian space power. As such, policymakers and scientists for JAXA, the Japanese space agency, have announced their plans to conduct a lunar landing by 2018. While the specifics of the SLIM mission (“Smart Lander for Investigating Moon”) are yet to be decided, and may or may not involve the delivery of a robotic rover, Japan’s scientists believe that this mission will help perfect the soft-landing technologies necessary for a future mission to Mars.

India, too, has visited the Moon once before, having sent its home-grown Chandrayaan 1 spacecraft to orbit the Moon in 2008. A few days after the orbital insertion, an impactor attached to the spacecraft plunged into the Moon’s surface, making India the fourth country in history to touch the lunar surface. Now, the Indians hope to accomplish a similar feat as the Chinese – successfully conducting a soft-landing upon the Moon and deploying a rover. This next Indian mission to the Moon, Chandrayaan 2,  is expected to launch in late 2017 or early 2018. It will consist of an orbiter spacecraft, a lander, and a rover roughly the size of the Chinese Yutu rover. The mission will mark the first time the Indians have employed a rover for space exploration. Once on the lunar surface, the rover and lander will conduct mineralogical and elemental studies and experiments.

Mission plan for the Chandrayaan 2 mission. Source: ISRO
Mission plan for the Chandrayaan 2 mission. Source: ISRO

Chandrayaan 2’s development history is also of some interest and significance. Originally it was slated to be a joint Russian-Indian mission, with Russia supplying the lander and the rover design and Indian building the orbiter. However, Russia withdrew from the project following the failure of its Fobos-Grunt mission to Mars in 2011, leaving India solely in charge of its development and pushing back Chandrayaan 2’s launch date. With all of the mission’s technology being Indian designed and constructed, the Indian space program has therefore emerged more capable despite the production setbacks and alterations to schedule.

Meanwhile, China continues to expand its lunar exploration program with increasingly ambitious goals. Having already seen successes with an orbiter, Chang’e 2, and a lander, Chang’e 3, the Chinese are now hoping to pull off the even more impressive feat of a lunar sample return. The next Chinese mission to the Moon, Chang’e 5, will attempt to do just that, conducting the first sample return in over 40 years; the last one, the Soviet Union’s Luna 26 mission, took place in 1976. Planned for launch in 2017, Chang’e 5 will feature an orbiter and a lander which will touch down upon the Moon and scoop up surface material. Once finished with its surface operations, the lander will then launch the material aboard a capsule back to the orbiter, aboard which it will then be returned to Earth.

Chinese scientists examine the Chang’e 5-T1 capsule, designed to practice the technologies needed on the Chang’e 5 mission, following its high-speed reentry to Earth in early 2015. Source: Spacenews

A sample return mission is no easy feat. Pulling off a high-speed reentry after a lunar-return trajectory requires sophisticated heat shielding technology and precision targeting abilities. The Chinese also hope to conduct a rendezvous in lunar orbit during their mission, linking up their filled sample capsule with the orbiter for the return to Earth; not even the Soviets attempted such a maneuver during their past sample return missions. To practice and refine those capabilities, China sent the Chang’e 5-T1 spacecraft, a mockup of the Chang’e 5 lunar sample capsule, on a orbital trajectory around the Moon. This also marked the first time a spacecraft traveled to the Moon and returned in over 40 years. While in lunar space, the Chang’e 5-T1 spacecraft practiced a number of maneuvers associated with the planned rendezvous and then successfully made its return to Earth in  early 2015, demonstrating China’s ability to achieve its high-sighted goals. Significantly, many of the skills and technologies needed to carry out a sample return mission, such as rendezvous in lunar space and high-speed reentry shielding, can be applied for human missions to the Moon. Indeed, many see the Chang’e missions as testbeds to practice the technologies needed for a manned Chinese mission to the Moon sometime in the coming decades.

While a lunar sample return mission is both technically impressive and prestigious for a developing space power like China, the Chinese are not satisfied with stopping there. Instead, they want to capture another lunar exploration “first,” putting them in the ranks of the United States and Russia as a pioneering lunar power. That “first” will come in the form of a landing on the far-side of the Moon sometime in 2020 or 2021; while NASA has mulled plans about a landing on that side of the Moon, it has never been attempted before. The Chang’e 4 spacecraft, a copy of Chang’e 3 built as a backup for that mission, will deploy a lander and a rover to study the lunar “dark side.” Such a mission will be technically complicated and challenging, as the lander will be out of direct contact with controllers on Earth and will need to rely on relaying data to an orbiter spacecraft.  If successful, the mission will not only be an impressive accomplishment for China’s lunar program, but will surely reveal some fascinating insights into an area never explored up-close before.

The Inner Solar System

Exploration beyond the Earth and into the depths of the Solar System represents the next stages of of humanity’s foray into the final frontier. Through study of the other planets, we gain deep insights into the history and development of not only our Solar System, but of the Earth and life upon it. While the outer Solar System, with its massive gas planets and cold, icy worlds, is a fascinating target for exploration, the inner Solar System, with its rocky, terrestrial planets, is perhaps more suited during this earlier period of exploration. Flight times to the inner Solar System’s planets are usually shorter and less challenging and worlds with fascinating pasts such as Venus and Mars may reveal to us more about the early Earth and perhaps even life beyond it. The inner Solar System is likely where we will set our eyes in the further future when planning the first human exploration missions and colonization efforts beyond our home planet. It makes sense, then, that the next few years of space exploration will see a number of missions to the various worlds and planets of our inner Solar System.

Another Mission to Mercury

The innermost planet Mercury, as seen by the MESSENGER spacecraft during a flyby in 2008 Source: NASA
The innermost planet Mercury, as seen by the MESSENGER spacecraft during a flyby in 2008 Source: NASA

Tidally locked in a close orbit around the Sun, our Solar System’s innermost planet is a fascinating world of intense heat and radiation on one side and cold and darkness on the other. Yet, because the orbital mechanics required to get to Mercury are incredibly difficult, few missions have been sent there. Only NASA’s Mariner 10 spacecraft, which flew by the planet a number of times in the mid-1970s, and the MESSENGER spacecraft, which became the first to enter orbit around Mercury in 2011, have visited the planet. However, since MESSENGER’s deorbit in 2015, there has been no active exploration of this small and under-studied world.

The European Space Agency and the Japanese hope to change that with their joint  BepiColombo mission, planned for launch in 2017. Most of the spacecraft equipment and design is being provided by the ESA for this mission, which has main responsibility for the mission, while Japan will help provide Earth-based tracking and control operations. The BepiColombo mission will consist of two orbiters launched together, the Mercury Planetary Orbiter and the Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter, which will provide a comprehensive study of Mercury’s magnetic fields, magnetosphere, interior structure, and surface.  The orbiters’ transfer stage, which will propel the mission through interplanetary space on its way to Mercury, will be powered by a highly-efficient ion engine; this will be the first time the European Space Agency has used ion engines, which are becoming increasingly popular choices for interplanetary probes and spacecraft, one of its missions.

An artist's impression of the BepiColombo mission in orbit around Mercury. Source: ESA
An artist’s impression of the BepiColombo mission in orbit around Mercury. Source: ESA

However, because of the slow acceleration provided by the ion thrusters aboard the spacecraft as well as the difficulty of maneuvering into a stable orbit around Mercury, the BepiColombo mission won’t actually arrive in orbit around the planet until sometime in 2024. To get there, the mission will be sent on an arching cruise around the Sun that involve a number of gravity-assist maneuvers around other planets. During the 7 year interplanetary flight, the spacecraft will visit and fly past Earth in 2018, Venus in 2019 and 2020, and then make five fly-by encounters of Mercury between 2020 and 2023. By then, the spacecraft’s velocity relative to Mercury should be low enough for it to be captured by the planet’s gravity, at which point the science mission may begin.

Japan Tries Again at Venus

When it comes to planetary exploration, Japan’s record has been mixed with successes and failures. Its first mission to another planet, the Nozomi spacecraft, failed to enter a Martian orbit after its launch in 1998 and was soon abandoned. After a decade-long hiatus from interplanetary travel, Japan then launched its Akatsuki spacecraft on a mission to Venus in 2010. At Venus, Akatsuki was supposed to study the planet’s complex meteorology and determine whether volcanic activity is taking place on the world’s surface. Yet, while the IKAROS spacecraft, which accompanied Akatsuki on its flight, succeeded in its primary mission of flying past Venus while testing solar-sail technology, Akatsuki failed to enter a Venusian orbit because of faulty thrusters and instead remains stuck in an orbit around the Sun.

A graphic of Japan's Akatsuki spacecraft, which will reattempt an orbit around Venus in late 2015. Source: JAXA
A graphic of Japan’s Akatsuki spacecraft, which will reattempt an orbit around Venus in late 2015. Source: JAXA

Not all hope is lost, however. Using the propellent still aboard the spacecraft, Japanese scientists have plans to salvage the mission by attempting another orbital insertion when Akatsuki makes a return to Venus in late 2015. Should this attempt succeed, Akatsuki will be placed into orbit around the planet, although at a much greater distance than was originally planned. Yet it remains to be seen whether the spacecraft will survive until its encounter with Venus, considering that it is now well past the design’s expected length of operation. Still, Japanese scientists have expressed their optimism that the probe will remain active, having placed it in a deep-hibernation mode until it reaches Venus. There is also the issue of heating; Akatsuki is making a number of very close passes to the Sun during its flight back to Venus which may cause sensitive instrumentation to deteriorate.

Should Japan manage to save the Akatsuki mission, it will not only be an impressive demonstration of resolving a technically difficult situation but an opportunity to explore further one of the solar system’s most impressive planets. Like Mercury, Venus is a world of extremes – runaway greenhouse heating has left its surface hot enough to melt lead. Yet in terms of size, mass, and distance from the Sun, Venus is Earth’s “sister planet,” closely resembling our home world. Determining whether Venus remains volcanically active and the nature of its meteorology, both aims of the Akatsuki mission, will go a long ways toward expanding our understanding of the second planet from the Sun.

More Missions to Mars

As a world which once harbored water, a rich atmosphere, and perhaps even life, and as the prime target for an eventual human interplanetary mission, Mars has been a prime focus for the world’s astronomers, scientists, and space programs. Over the past decades, the cadence of Mars exploration has quickened dramatically; as of today, there are 5 functioning spacecraft in Mars orbit and 2  rovers still operating on the Martian surface. Surely, even as new missions are sent to the Red Planet, this fleet of exploration vehicles will continue to provide us with some incredible insights into Mars’ history and environment and will continue to smash records – for example, NASA’s Opportunity Rover, which has explored the planet’s surface for a remarkable 11 years,  keeps pushing back the record as the longest operating surface exploration vehicle in history. Still, while the current and ongoing missions to Mars are incredibly exciting and important, the next coming years will see an even more exciting, newer phase of Mars exploration – one with upcoming players, more sophisticated technology, more ambitious aims, and more advanced scientific capabilities. After all, there is still very much left to learn about our Solar System’s 4th planet.

A computer generated image of NASA's InSight lander, which will explore the Martian sub-surface sometime after launch in 2017. Source: NASA
A computer generated image of NASA’s InSight lander, which will explore the Martian sub-surface sometime after launch in 2016. Source: NASA

Slated for launch in 2016, NASA’s InSight lander will study Mar’s surface and sub-surface with seismographic and heat transfer instruments in order to determine the history of its geological evolution. This will help bring about a better understanding of the processes that helped shape the inner planets of the Solar System early in their formation. Prior to landing upon Mars, the spacecraft will also deploy a number of small cubesats which will relay data between InSight and Earth during the landing. These cubesats are part of a technology demonstration proving the feasibility of an interplanetary cubesat communication relay. In order to keep its budget low and stick to schedule, InSight was largely designed off the technology and hardware used for NASA’s earlier Phoenix mission to Mars.

The United Arab Emirates, whose young space program, formed only in July 2014, has limited experience  deploying an array of satellites, hopes to propel itself into the club of exploring powers with a mission to Mars set for sometime in the early 2020s. It will consist of an orbiter, Mars Hope, which will study the Martian atmosphere and climate. As the United Arab Emirates has no launch vehicle of its own to send the craft to Mars, the country’s scientists will need to rely on an outside contractor to supply the rocket. Nonetheless, if the United Arab Emirates manages to pull off such a mission, it will be an incredible feat; not only would it be the first Arab interplanetary mission in history, but would be a highly impressive demonstration of skill by a space program not even a decade old. With the mission having secured funding and design plans already drawn up, it appears as though the UAE is prepared and willing to take such a bold leap into space.

A graphic representation of the Trace Gas Orbiter and the EDM, both part of the first mission of the ExoMars program. Source: ESA
A graphic representation of the Trace Gas Orbiter and the EDM, both part of the first mission of the ExoMars program. Source: ESA

Yet perhaps the most ambitious project for Mars exploration in the coming few years is the European Space Agency’s ExoMars program, scheduled to run between 2016 and 2018. Consisting of multiple mission phases, first with an orbiter and a lander followed eventually by a rover, the program will investigate the Martian environment in a search to discover whether life ever existed there and whether it may still live there today. Equally important, the ExoMars missions will be important technology demonstrations for for future European exploration missions to Mars. Among the capabilities being tested are the landing of a large payload on the surface of Mars, surface mobility with a rover, access to Mar’s subsurface to acquire samples, and actual sample acquisition and analysis.

The first mission of the ExoMars program is set to launch in January 2016 and will arrive at Mars in late 2016. It will consist of the Trace Gas Orbiter and the Schiaparelli Entry, Descent, and Landing Demonstrator Module (EDM). The spacecraft will launch together on a Russia Proton rocket and fly mated together to Mars. While in Martian orbit, the Trace Gas Orbiter will study the locations and nature of the sources which produce gases of possible biological importance, such as methane. This scientific mission is expected to begin in mid-2017 and will last for a period of at least one Martian year. The Orbiter will also provide a data and communications linkage with the EDM as the module makes its descent to the Martian surface and eventually serve as a relay for the ExoMars rover. The Orbiter will also scout out suitable landing locations for the eventual deployment of the rover.

The Schiaparelli EDM in its landing phase. Source: ESA
The Schiaparelli EDM in its landing phase. Source: ESA

The Schiaparelli EDM, meanwhile, will test the ESA’s ability to deliver payloads onto the surface of Mars by conducting a surface landing. It will separate from the Trace Gas Orbiter three days before descent, experience a controlled entry with the aid of massive parachutes that deploy while the spacecraft is traveling twice the speed of sound, and will then be slowly brought down with a powered landing. The EDM is targeted to land somewhere on Mar’s Meridiani Planum. This area interests scientists because it contains an ancient layer of hematite, an iron oxide that, on Earth, almost always forms in an environment containing liquid water. While primarily a technology demonstrator, the EDM will also carry a limited science suite; it will deploy a science package that will operate on the surface of Mars for a short duration after landing, last approximately 2-8 days.

Mar's ExoMars rover, to be deployed on Mars in 2018. Source: ESA
The European Space Agency’s ExoMars Rover, to be deployed on Mars in 2018. Source: ESA

Should all go according to plan with the first ExoMars mission, the ESA will then be set to move into phase two of the program, which consists of a rover on the Martian surface; this will be the first non-American rover on Mars. The ExoMars Rover, under development by the ESA, will be dedicated to exobiology and geochemistry research and study the Martian interior. Key among the rover’s scientific equipment will be a drill capable of digging samples from up to 6 feet beneath the Martian surface. After a launch in 2018 and an arrival at Mars in late 2018, the rover will be deployed on the surface with the aid of Russian-built descent module. Much of the vehicle’s surface operation will be conducted autonomously by on-board computers, much like NASA’s Curiosity Rover. Mission planners expect the rover to travel several miles during the span of its operation.

Proposed science instruments for NASA's Mars 2020 rover. Source: NASA
Proposed science instruments for NASA’s Mars 2020 rover. Source: NASA

NASA also has plans for another rover on Mars, which will build off the successful legacy and design of its Curiosity Rover. Dubbed the Mars 2020 Rover, the vehicle will be about the size of a car and, because of its size and weight, would require a sky-crane delivery at Mars similar to how Curiosity was deployed. While the specific science objectives of this mission have yet to be determined, mission planners have stated that the rover should look for past signs of life, collect samples for a possible future return to Earth, and demonstrate technologies for future human missions to Mars. Among the proposals for how the the Mars 2020 rover could pave the way for future human exploration at Mars is through a demonstration of in-situ resource utilization technologies that enable propellant and consumable oxygen production from the Martian atmosphere. Such technology would be crucial for long-term habitation on Mars as well as for powering a lift-off from the planet. To carry out its scientific objectives, the rover will carry 7 science instruments, a number of which have already been proposed and selected. Mars 2020 is scheduled for launch in 2020 and will arrive at Mars in 2021.

Exploring the Asteroids

The asteroid 433 Eros, as imaged by NASA's NEAR Shoemaker spacecraft. Source: NASA
The asteroid 433 Eros, as imaged by NASA’s NEAR Shoemaker spacecraft. Source: NASA

Asteroids, small bodies of rock and ice in orbit around our Sun, are time-capsules to the earliest eras of our Solar System; astronomers believe that most asteroids in the “asteroid belt” separating Mars and the inner Solar System from Jupiter and the outer Solar System are the ancient remnants of an unformed world. As such, by studying the characteristics and compositions of these tiny worlds, we may come closer to understanding the processes which led to the formation of our star, the planets, and perhaps even life on Earth. With the scientific and material value of the asteroids becoming ever more apparent over the past two decades, there has been a marked increase in the number of missions sent to visit and study them. Looking ahead at the next few years, this trend of exploration shows no sign of slowing.

NASA has made past visits to a number of asteroids. The Galileo spacecraft, on its way to Jupiter, and the Cassini spacecraft, on its way to Saturn, conducted asteroid flybys as they passed into the outer Solar System, returning multiple pictures and other observations. NASA’s first dedicated mission to an asteroid, NEAR Shoemaker, was launched in 1996 and also flew past a number of asteroids before being placed in orbit around the asteroid 433 Eros. NEAR Shoemaker concluded its mission with a soft-landing upon 433 Ero’s surface, the first asteroid landing in history. Now, NASA has plans to conduct its first sample return mission to an asteroid.

An artist's rendition of OSIRIS-REx collecting samples from asteroid 101955 Bennu. Source: NASA
An artist’s rendition of OSIRIS-REx collecting samples from asteroid 101955 Bennu. Source: NASA

The spacecraft carrying out the mission, OSIRIS-REx, is scheduled to launch in 2016. It will visit asteroid 101955 Bennu, which was chosen because of its high quantities of carbonaceous material – key in the formation of organic molecules necessary for life. After a flight of two years, the spacecraft will gradually approach the asteroid until a robotic arm scoops up surface samples. Numerous scientific studies of the asteroid will also take place during this time. Then, up to 4 pounds of samples will be returned to Earth, finally landing sometime in 2013.  The OSIRIS-REx mission has an added purpose: to determine whether 101955 Bennu poses a risk to Earth. The asteroid’s orbit brings it close to Earth every six years, and there stands a small chance it may hit our planet sometime in the next two centuries. OSIRIS-REx will study the characteristics of 101955 Bennu’s orbit, as well as non-gravitational effects upon that orbit, in order to help scientist’s determine the asteroid’s collision probability.

Japan also has plans to carry out a sample return mission, its second, in the next couple of years. Its first mission, Hayabusa, landed on asteroid 25143 Itokawa in 2005, tiny samples of which were successful returned to Earth in 2010.  Hayabusa became the first-ever preplanned landing upon the surface of an asteroid (NASA’s NEAR Shoemaker’s landing was not preplanned) and greatly advanced Japan’s capabilities in the fields of ion engines, deep space communications, and interplanetary navigation. However, control issues on the return flight nearly caused a termination of the mission. With Hayabusa 2, launched in late 2014 and scheduled to arrive at its target asteroid in July 2018, Japanese scientists hope to address weak points from the past mission while carrying on Japan’s legacy of asteroid exploration.

A rendering of Japan's Hayabusa 2 spacecraft collecting samples from an asteroid. Source: JAXA
A rendering of Japan’s Hayabusa 2 spacecraft collecting samples from an asteroid. Source: JAXA

Hayabusa 2 will be of the same design as its predecessor, although it features upgraded guidance and navigation technology as well as improved antennas and control systems. It will also carry an impactor spacecraft designed to create an artificial crater upon the asteroid it visits. This will allow for the collection of fresh samples less affected by the space environment or heat. The target asteroid, 1993 JU3, is similar to 101955 Bennu in that it is a primitive C-type asteroid, so the samples Hayabusa 2 returns should provide great insights into the very early Solar System. The samples are slated for a return to Earth sometime in December 2020.

The Outer Solar System

Once past the inner planets and the asteroid belt, the Solar System transforms into a very different realm: one of empty space, swooping comets, massive gassy planets, and distant icy dwarf worlds. Considering the distances and difficulties involved in reaching the depths of our Solar System, it is no small wonder that there haven’t been too many missions sent to explore it. Indeed, in the half century of space exploration, Jupiter and Saturn have only been explored from orbit once, Uranus and Neptune have only been visited a single time, and Pluto has only just now been seen up-close. As such, the mysteries of the gas planets and the Outer Solar System are still plenty, leaving much to be learned.

The gassy worlds of the Outer Solar System, as captured by NASA spacecraft. Source: NASA
The gassy worlds of the Outer Solar System, as captured by NASA spacecraft. Source: NASA

Of course, again considering the planning and expertise needed to successfully conduct a mission deep into our Solar System, there are today very few missions scheduled to explore there. Those that are scheduled are either many years away or have already been launched into flight. Among the missions still years away are the European Space Agency’s JUICE (Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer), which is set to arrive at Jupiter in 2030 and will focus on studying three of Jupiter’s major moons – Ganymede, Callisto, and Europa.  All three are believed to harbor bodies of liquid water beneath their surfaces and are currently thought to host potentially habitable environments; a mission to explore and classify their interiors will do much toward advancing our understanding of these fascinating “frozen oceans.” A separate NASA mission, planned for launch sometime in the 2020s, will explore Europa in greater depth. The mission will send a highly capable, radiation-tolerant spacecraft into a long, looping orbit around Jupiter in order to perform repeated close flybys of Europa. This “Europa Clipper” mission, as it is now being referred to, is today still in the early planning stages; nonetheless, once underway, it will surely provide some deeply desired answers about one of our Solar System’s most fascinating moons.

Juno at Jupiter

While JUICE and the Europa Clipper mission are still in the planning and development stages, there is one major mission currently en-route to the Outer Solar System: NASA’s Juno spacecraft. Juno, which launched in 2011 and is expected to arrive at Jupiter in July 2016, is designed to study Jupiter’s composition, gravity field, magnetic field, and polar magnetosphere. Doing so will help provide clues as to how our Solar System’s largest planet formed, and may answer lingering questions such as whether Jupiter has a rocky core, how much water is present within its deep atmosphere, how its mass distributed, and how its intense winds, which can reach speeds of up to 380 miles per hour, are produced. Indeed, Juno may very well provide us the greatest amount of insights and information about the nature of gas giants, their evolution, and their role in our Solar System’s dynamics that any mission to the Outer Solar System has yet accomplished.

An artist's rendition of NASA's Juno spacecraft at Jupiter. Source: NASA
An artist’s rendition of NASA’s Juno spacecraft at Jupiter. Source: NASA

After its five-year, 1.7 billion mile cruise to Jupiter, which took Juno near the Earth in 2013 for a gravity-assist flyby, the spacecraft will be captured into an orbit across Jupiter’s poles. This type of orbit will help the spacecraft avoid any long-term contact with Jupiter’s intense radiation belts, which can cause critical damage to the spacecraft’s sensitive electronics and instruments. Indeed, 1-centemeter-thick titanium walls were built around Juno’s electronics in order to help protect and shield them from the planetary radiation. After completing 33 orbits around Jupiter, the spacecraft’s mission is set to conclude in October 2017. Juno will then be de-orbited and will burn up in Jupiter’s outer atmosphere, so as to avoid any possible collisions and contamination of one of the planet’s many moons.

While Juno is an important science mission in its own right, it is also a significant technological demonstration. The spacecraft will be the first ever  to reach the planets of the Outer Solar System using solar panels instead of a nuclear generator, which have been used on all past deep-space probes. A global shortage of Pu-238, the isotope used to power such a generator, as well as major advances in both solar-cell technology and efficiency over the past several decades has now made it economically preferable to use solar panels to provide power at Jupiter’s distance from the Sun. Each of Juno’s three solar arrays is 8.9 feet by 29 feet long, by far the biggest on any NASA deep-space probe. Still, once in orbit, the panels will only be able to muster about 400 watts of electricity… enough to power a handful of light-bulbs; as such, the spacecraft’s instruments and on-board computer were designed to be incredibly energy-efficient. By successfully demonstrating the applicability of solar power use in deep-space, Juno may bring about a shifting of space probe design. At a time when there are supply, financial, and environmental concerns about spacecraft-borne nuclear generators, this may be a dramatic shifting indeed.

New Horizons Past Pluto

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft made history in July 2015 when, after a 9 year flight, it zoomed past Pluto, becoming the first spacecraft to ever encounter that cold, distant world. Over the coming months, the spacecraft will be beaming back to Earth the bulk of data it collected during the flyby; the information already returned, however, shows Pluto and its moon Charon to be geologically-active, diverse, and unexpectedly fascinating worlds. Surely, major discoveries and insights will be gained in the coming years using New Horizon’s observations of Pluto.

NASA's New Horizons spacecraft, which encountered Pluto in 2015 and is expected to flyby a Kuiper Belt world in the coming years. Source: NASA
NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, which encountered Pluto in 2015 and is expected to flyby a Kuiper Belt world in the coming years. Source: NASA

New Horizon’s stunning mission of exploration is not yet over; indeed, it has perhaps only just begun. Scientists and mission planners now want the craft, which is careening into the far reaches of our Solar System, to explore what is known as the Kuiper Belt.  The Kuiper Belt is a vast region of small, icy worlds, somewhat similar to the asteroid belt, which orbit the Sun at a great distance past the planets. Some astronomers argue that Pluto is, rather than a planet, one of the inner-most and largest worlds of the Kuiper Belt; indeed, its status as a part of the Kuiper Belt was a cause behind its reclassification as a “dwarf world” instead of a planet. Nonetheless, exploring the  worlds of the Kuiper Belt will be of both major historic and scientific importance: no spacecraft has ever explored the region in-depth before, and, as it is likely that the Kuiper Belt objects are extremely primitive remnants from the early phases of the Solar System, such exploration may do much to reveal more about the early evolution of our Solar System.

Pre-mission planning hoped that New Horizons would be able to encounter at least one and perhaps two additional Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) after its encounter with Pluto. Yet a number of constraints exist on an extended mission: any KBO visited would have to fall within 1 degree of New Horizons’ post-Pluto trajectory and within an orbital boundary of 55 AU. This is because of the minimal amount of fuel left in the spacecraft that could be dedicated to more maneuvers as well as the probe’s ever-weakening communications and power abilities. By late 2014, the Hubble Space Telescope revealed three potential targets for New Horizons which all fell within the required parameters for a visit. However, the probability that New Horizons may be able to reach those objects, identified as PT1, PT2, and PT3, varies; there is a 100% chance the craft could reach PT1, a 7% chance it could reach PT2, and a 97% chance it could reach PT3.

An artist's rendition of a Kupier Belt Object, perhaps similar to the one NASA's New Horizons spacecraft may visit in the coming years. Source: NASA
An artist’s rendition of a Kupier Belt Object, perhaps similar to the one NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft may visit in the coming years. Source: NASA

Should PT1 be chosen for a flyby, New Horizons will reach it in January 2019. According to mission planners, though, PT3 may be more preferable as a target since it is brighter and  probably larger than PT1 and therefore more attractive for scientific observation. A final decision on which object New Horizons will visit after Pluto is expected to be made in August 2015. Either way, it now appears likely that New Horizons will indeed have an extended mission to a KBO.

After New Horizon’s eventual flyby of a KBO, the spacecraft will join NASA’s Voyager spacecraft in the exploration of the outer most regions of the Solar System by mapping the heliosphere and solar winds. It is currently estimated that the spacecraft will end its mission in 2026, the point at which the plutonium in its nuclear generator will decay. However, if New Horizons is still functioning when it reaches the outer heliosphere, it is expected that the spacecraft will encounter the edge of our Solar System in 2047 and then join the Voyager and Pioneer spacecraft in interstellar space.


The "Hubble Deep Field" image, taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, reveals hundreds of thousands of galaxies in deep space. The image was taken from a small, single point of the sky. Source: NASA
The “Hubble Deep Field” image, taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, reveals hundreds of thousands of galaxies in deep space. The image was taken from a small, single point of the sky. Source: NASA

There is, obviously, far, far more to the universe than our own Solar System. While we at present are limited to exploring only the Solar System with our robotic and human spacecraft, we have nonetheless been able to explore far beyond it using powerful telescopes and radio instruments. Indeed, with the coming of sophisticated space- and Earth-bound telescopes, there has been an exploration revolution of sorts in the past few decades. Among them, the Hubble Space Telescope has provided us with unprecedented images of the universe from within our own galaxy to the farthest reaches of intergalactic space. The Spitzer Space Telescope, in an orbit around the Sun that leaves it trailing the Earth, revealed through infrared imaging an unseen universe of gas and dust. Meanwhile, the Chandra X-ray Observatory has investigated x-ray sources with a power 100 times that of past X-ray telescopes, while the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory provided detection for both gamma rays and x-rays. Recently, the Kepler Space Telescope has searched nearby stars for orbiting planets, revealing that our Solar System is by no means unique in having planets small, large, rocky and gassy. Together, these space telescopes, along with a myriad of other telescopes and instruments on the Earth, have given us great insights into the complex nature and structure of the universe at-large. This observation revolution shows no signs of stopping soon, however; indeed, over the next few years, a number of major missions are planned which will surely let us investigate further into the universe with even more power than before.

A New Search for E.T.

The question of whether life, especially intelligent life, exists beyond the Earth is one of the most significant and profound facing humanity today. It is easy to imagine that the discovery of alien intelligence would dramatically shift our perceptions of ourselves and our place and role in the universe. While many of the exploration missions in our Solar System search for evidence of life past or present, there also remains an entire universe to explore in order to find it. For almost half a century, a dedicated search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) has probed the sky with massive telescopes and radio dishes, hoping to pick up some signal or sign that would indicate the presence of an extraterrestrial civilization. Yet, for the past half century, scientists have been met with deafening silence; in turn, many of SETI’s key funders have backed away from supporting the project over the past few years.

The Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia; one of three telescopes being used in the new Breakthrough Listen initiative to find alien intelligence. Source:
The Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia; one of three telescopes being used in the new Breakthrough Listen initiative to find alien intelligence. Source:

Enter Russian billionaire Yuri Milner, who teamed up with physicist Steven Hawking to announce in 2015 an unprecedented $100 million dollar decade-long project to provide the most comprehensive search for alien communication in history. The initiative, called Breakthrough Listen, will use telescopes in Virginia, Australia, and California to scan around one million stars in the Milky Way galaxy and hundreds of nearby galaxies listening for sophisticated radio signals. The search will be conducted by a team that includes scientists from the past long-running SETI programs; other advisers will include longtime SETI astronomers and prominent members of the SETI community. With such an expansion of capabilities, the SETI community is planning to potentially produce as much data in a day as earlier SETI projects collected in a year. Significantly, the data produced will be made publicly available and the Breakthrough Listen team will produce software to help private individuals sift through the flood of data; making the search open-source will greatly expand the extent and rate at which the data can be analyzed.

Although, if the past half-century has demonstrated anything, the chances of Breakthrough Listen finding evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence is incredibly slim, it nonetheless represents the most impressive and large-scale effort  to do so in history. Not only that, the initiative will likely have a positive impact on the wider astronomy community; the investment has saved some relatively old telescopes from the threat of closure and the sky survey might astronomers discover more pulsars and other objects of astronomical interest.

TESS Uncovers Extrasolar Planets

A rendering of the TESS space telescope, set for launch in 2017, Source: NASA
A rendering of the TESS space telescope, set for launch in 2017, Source: NASA

Our galaxy is full of stars and those stars, as we’re increasingly becoming aware, are full of planets of all sizes and forms. With each new discovery of an extrasolar planet, we come closer to finding worlds which may resemble our own, and which very well may be habitable for life.  NASA now has plans to launch a space telescope in 2017 which will greatly expand our capacity for discovering those potentially habitable worlds. Known as the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, or TESS, this telescope will survey the brightest stars near Earth for a period of two years hoping to finding planets in orbit around them. While the Kepler Space Telescope, which launched in 2009, has already identified many small and potentially rocky worlds around other stars, it has only been searching around 100,00 stars…. a relatively small slice of the sky. TESS, however, will be able to cover about 400 times as much area.

TESS will operate by looking for changes in observed light from the stars it is targeting; this change in light is indicative of a planet passing in front of it. This method of discovery, known as the “transit method,” has been widely used in the past by ground-based telescopes; however, these past surveys have mostly found large gas planets similar to Jupiter because of the limited sensitivity of their instruments. TESS, however,  will be capable of identifying small planets similar in size to the Earth, or perhaps even smaller. Once it has identified those planets, TESS’s instruments will allow it to study their obits, masses, densities, and the chemical composition of their atmospheres; such information will go a long way toward characterizing the nature of those planets and may indeed reveal whether they are suitable for habitation. TESS’s sky survey will also provide targets for further observation by the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope, along with other space- and ground-based telescopes.

The James Webb Space Telescope

A rendering of the James Webb Space Telescope, NASA's successor to the Hubble and Spitzer telescopes. The gray foil under the telescope is the spacecraft's massive sun-shield. Source: NASA
A rendering of the James Webb Space Telescope, NASA’s successor to the Hubble and Spitzer telescopes. The gray foil under the telescope is the spacecraft’s massive sun-shield. Source: NASA

Building off the successes of its past space telescopes, NASA hopes to launch a new space telescope which has the potential to revolutionize the fields of astronomy and cosmology and which will serve as a successor to the Hubble and Spitzer telescopes. The James Webb Space Telescope, named after the NASA administrator pivotal to the success of the Apollo program, will offer unprecedented resolution and sensitivity from the visible to the mid-infrared spectrum. With these capabilities, it will be able to observe some of the most distant objects in the universe, such as the very first stars and the formation of the very first galaxies. Astronomers also hope to use the James Webb Telescope to understand the formation of stars and planets through the imaging of molecular clouds and star-forming clusters, studying debris disks around stars, taking direct images of extrasolar planets, and conducting spectroscopic examination of extrasolar planets. The telescope is also one of space history’s most significant examples of international collaboration;  17 countries have contributed to the telescope, with NASA, the European Space Agency, and the Canadian Space Agency at the lead.

The James Webb Space Telescope promises to offer incredible images of places and times in the universe that we’ve never before observed. Of tremendous excitement is that, through the spectroscopic examination of extrasolar planets, which determines the composition of those planets atmospheres, we may very well be able to determine whether there are signs of life on those planets; certain atmospheric compositions, after all, can only be produced from the presence of life.

A diagram demonstrating the L2 point at which the James Webb Space Telescope will operate. Source: NASA
A diagram demonstrating the L2 point at which the James Webb Space Telescope will operate. Source: NASA

The telescope will be launched in 2018 on a mission that is expected to run for five years, although mission planners hope that the telescope will operate for at least 10 years. It will be placed near the Earth-Sun L2 Lagrange point, about 930,000 miles beyond the Earth. This is a point at which objects can orbit the Sun at a synchronized rate as the Earth, allowing the telescope to remain at a roughly constant distance. In order to maintain the telescope’s incredibly sensitive instruments, the spacecraft needs to be super-cooled; to accomplish this, the telescope has a massive sun-shield built-in that will block heat and light from the Sun and the Earth. This should keep the telescope at temperatures below -370 degrees Fahrenheit.  While keeping the telescope at the L2 point is necessary for optimal functioning, it does carry risks; no astronauts will be able to reach it in order to conduct repairs should they be necessary. Considering that the Hubble Space Telescope only worked after a crucial in-orbit repair by Space Shuttle astronauts, this has caused significant concern among some mission planners.

Should the telescope function as intended and return the terrific science that is hoped of it, it will be a solid conclusion to an otherwise troubled program. The James Webb program began in 1996 and has had a history of major cost overruns and delays. Initial estimates placed the telescope’s launch in 2011, and the U.S. Congress very nearly cut funding for the telescope in 2011. As of today, the telescope is on schedule for its 2018 launch, although the program’s status remains controversial while the telescope is being constructed. Nonetheless, with the program still anticipating eventual launch, the James Webb Space Telescope looks poised to be the premier observatory for the next decade, serving thousands of astronomers worldwide and greatly advancing our understanding of the early and deep universe like never before.

SpaceX's Falcon 9, prepped for the CRS-7, prior to its launch and explosion. Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX’s rocket blew up. What’s it mean for commercial spaceflight?

139 seconds into flight on June 28th, 2015, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket experienced an “anomaly” in its upper stage and disintegrated off the coast of Florida. Lost among the billowing clouds of debris that marked the rocket’s demise were a new docking adapter for the International Space Station (ISS), a load of scientific experiments, cargo and provisions for the ISS crew, and, perhaps most significantly, SpaceX’s much-touted flawless launch record. And, for the enthusiastic community of “New Space” and commercial spaceflight advocates watching the live video stream of the accident, there likely arose concerns over the future of the commercial space industry. With many in the space community putting their hope in SpaceX to innovate the launch market and drive down costs, this loss of mission was a sobering reminder that space is difficult and that no company, regardless of its prestige or image, is infallible. So what does this failure mean for commercial spaceflight in general?

Probably nothing. As policy analysts, space insiders, and industry experts have pointed out again and again since the accident, this loss of mission is likely nothing more than a bump in the road (albeit a considerable one) for SpaceX and, by extension, for commercial space. Yet the context and circumstances of this failure are important in the broader picture of the developing commercial space industry and are therefore worth discussing. After all, while this accident may not be a turning point in the path toward the commercialization of space, it will nonetheless be a historical footnote of significance.

SpaceX's Falcon 9, prepped for the CRS-7, prior to its launch and explosion. Credit: SpaceX
SpaceX’s Falcon 9, prepped for the CRS-7, prior to its launch and explosion. Credit: SpaceX

First, to frame this discussion, a brief review of commercial spaceflight is prudent.

A Background on Commercial Space:

Lost among many supporters of SpaceX and other upstart space companies is the fact that commercial spaceflight is hardly new. Long-established organizations such as United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Lockheed Martin and Boeing, and the European Airbus-run Arianespace, have, along with commercial launches by national space programs, held a near-monopoly on the commercial space market for decades. Referred to in the space community as “Old Space,” these companies have traditionally been the providers of launches for defense, private, and sometimes scientific customers. Considering the cost and complexity of space technology, it was until recently exceedingly difficult for companies that didn’t have prior experience in the space industry through public contracts with NASA or which weren’t established aerospace players to enter the trade. These “Old Space” companies, although having great records of reliability by virtue of their long experience, have been frequently criticized for a lack of technological innovation; many designs for the commercial rocket fleet are decades old. As a result, prices for payloads into space have remained high. As routinely pointed out by advocates of private space travel, tourism, and commerce, this represents a prohibitive environment for the development of space.

Enter “New Space,” the recent generation of companies dedicated to developing launch and spacecraft capabilities. Over the past two decades, private investment and private and government-funded initiatives – such as the X-Prizes, which in 2004 enabled the first private suborbital flight – have helped upstart companies obtain the financial wherewithal to develop the technologies and infrastructure necessary for successful commercial ventures into space. With the proliferation of new launch providers and the opening of the commercial space market, some new companies have begun earnestly exploring the possibilities for commercial space mining, for suborbital and orbital tourism, for private Moon landings, and for orbital hotels and outposts. Meanwhile, close technical and financial collaboration between NASA and the commercial space industry through the Commercial Crew and Commercial Cargo Program have catalyzed the remarkable growth in capabilities and market participation for companies such as SpaceX and Orbital ATK.

Indeed, the Commercial Crew and Cargo Program may be one of the single most important factors in the recent development of the commercial space industry, and represents an important change in policy direction and calculation for NASA. Begun in the 2000s, the program has provided hundreds of millions of dollars to numerous American space companies for the development of human spaceflight technologies and concepts. Since 2012, some of the companies awarded contracts with NASA through this program, such as SpaceX and Orbital ATK, have been providing private cargo launches to the International Space Station; the rocket that SpaceX just lost was on such a mission – SpaceX’s 7th commercial resupply mission to the International Station. Beginning in 2017, SpaceX and Boeing, another contract-awardee through the program, will be conducting launches of NASA astronauts to the International Space Station using their privately-developed, human-rated spacecraft.

SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft arrives at the ISS on a NASA-contracted resupply mission. Credit: NASA
SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft arrives at the ISS on a NASA-contracted resupply mission. Credit: NASA

The paradigm shift that the commercial program represents is borne largely from NASA’s shifting of priorities and lacking in capabilities. Since the retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2011, NASA has been without a spacecraft capable of shuttling cargo and supplies to the ISS; American astronauts have been forced to fly upon Russian Soyuz spacecraft to get into space, often at the cost of hundreds of millions of dollars per seat. While the SLS rocket and Orion spacecraft currently under development are capable of such missions, they are designed to be beyond-Earth-orbit vehicles; their use for the purposes of logistical support and crew rotation to the ISS and in low-Earth-orbit would be highly inefficient. Thus, by investing in private companies to provide these services through the commercial program, NASA is not only divesting from Russia at a time of significant geopolitical tensions, but is enabled to focus on its mission of space exploration and scientific discovery. Meanwhile, both the “Old Space” and “New Space” companies involved in the space industry have benefited enormously from the financial supported offered through contracts with NASA for the commercial program; indeed, for some such as SpaceX, these contracts have been vital in order to become established in the industry.

The June 28th launch of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket – termed CRS-7, the 7th commercial resupply mission SpaceX was to carry out per its contractual obligations with NASA – was the result of years of policy calculation, funding, and support by NASA for the commercial space industry. It represented the continual progress and development of the industry toward greater capabilities, an increased role in the American space program, and an expansion of the commercial space market. For many of those who had tuned in to watch the launch on live stream, hopes were high that the mission would demonstrate the payoffs and benefits of the commercial program and the involvement of private industry in space. But, as June 28th amply demonstrated, sometimes rockets blow up.

 An Inconvenient Time for Failure

The CRS-7 failure couldn’t have come at a more inconvenient time for SpaceX and advocates of commercial space. It followed the October, 2014 explosion of Orbital’s Antares rocket, another commercial resupply launch that resulted in a complete loss of mission. Coupled with the loss of a Russian resupply spacecraft in April, some have had well-intentioned (if misplaced) fears that the astronauts aboard the International Space Station will run out of supplies. Meanwhile, in the policy world, funding for commercial spaceflight has recently been under the scope, with budget cuts proposed that could significantly hamper the commercial program. The consecutive failure of two of the program’s main contractors provides considerable ammunition for policymakers opposed to the program, and likely has given rise to doubt and concern about the effectiveness of NASA’s commercial crew and cargo policy.

SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket disintegrates in the sky above Florida on June 28, 2015. Credit: NASA
SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket disintegrates in the sky above Florida on June 28, 2015. Credit: NASA

SpaceX’s failure has also come at a time of growing, and heated, market competition between the company and the “Old Space” contingent of the space industry. After a lengthy battle with industry giants and the U.S. government, SpaceX was awarded Air Force certification to launch the United States’ most critical military spacecraft, breaking the monopoly held by ULA on that lucrative, potentially multibillion-dollar market. In large part, SpaceX was awarded the certification by virtue of its then near-flawless launch record, a necessary prerequisite for military launches of crucial importance. As the competition between ULA and SpaceX intensifies, ULA has pointed to its highly reliable launch record (only 1 launch out of nearly 4 dozen has been flawed, and even then did not result in complete mission failure) as the value the company holds over the more innovative, cheaper launches offered by SpaceX and other “New Space” companies; indeed, the bulk of ULA’s market rhetoric has been that reliability trumps pricing. With SpaceX having a record of 18 successful consecutive launches prior to the CRS-7 failure while still seeking innovative technologies to drive down prices, ULA’s arguments carried marginal weight at best. Now, such arguments have considerable merit.

Also of significance is that, in part because of SpaceX’s innovative approach to spaceflight and in part because of the bombastic rhetoric of its tech-billionaire founder and CEO Elon Musk, the company has been subject to an unusual amount of media exposure and a considerable base of popular enthusiasm. This has especially been the case during the testing of the Falcon 9’s reusability capabilities, which SpaceX had sought to perfect during the CRS-7 launch. While this benefits SpaceX during times of success, it has also made it liable to increased scrutiny during times of failure. For a company that thrives on its image and relies upon the perceptions of its supporters and customers in order to compete with the industry’s more established players, heightened scrutiny during this trying time may jeopardize the integrity of that image.

There is then the issue of delays, inevitable and indeed necessary following any failure involving a launch vehicle. While SpaceX will spend this time figuring out what issues led to the rocket failure, resolving latent problems with its launch technology, and reassuring NASA, Congress, and its customers about the value of their product, the fact remains that the company is a launch provider – so long as rockets aren’t going up, money isn’t coming in. This delay not only complicates the cadence of SpaceX’s launches, which the company must keep high so as to prove and perfect their reusability technology and keep launch prices low, but, critically, harms the customer as well; so long as a company’s satellite isn’t flying, that company is yet to be making money on it. As delays persist and the wait time for customers to have their products launched extends, consumer confidence in SpaceX is bound to suffer. Nearly as critical is that this delay harms SpaceX’s bids for government and commercial launches; until SpaceX can demonstrate its value through a return-to-flight, both private and public customers may look elsewhere for a more expedited launch time-frame.

As such, SpaceX’s recently failure has considerably clouded its competition with ULA for launch contracts, which, until June 28th, had given encouragement to spaceflight enthusiasts that the commercial space industry was becoming more open to market competition – and, in turn, to driving down prices and innovating spaceflight technology.

Despite it all, Encouraging Signs

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 exploding over the coast of Florida came at an inconvenient time for commercial spaceflight and, at face value, bodes poorly for the company. Yet, despite it all, there have since been encouraging signs about the future of the industry. For all the aforementioned areas where SpaceX’s failure could pose significant problems, there have been reassurances that it is little more than a bump in the road. By and large, industry experts and policy makers recognize that space is hard, that rockets (which are themselves powered by little more than controlled explosions) can be destroyed by the most marginal mistakes, and that accidents shouldn’t preclude the continued development of the commercial space industry.

As the battle over commercial crew and cargo funding continues in the policy world, a number of high-profile individuals have come out in support of the program and SpaceX, even despite the recent failure. Senator Bill Nelson of Florida, who chairs the committee responsible for setting NASA policy, expressed his confidence that SpaceX will rebound from its recent failure and that the accident should have no impact on the current direction of the Commercial Crew and Cargo programs. Senator John McCain, who chairs the Senate Armed Forces Committee, expressed similar support for SpaceX despite the failure. Meanwhile, Senator Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, has lent her support (albeit so far unsuccessfully) for restoring the commercial program’s funding back to appropriate levels. While the explosion of SpaceX’s rocket during a NASA-contracted resupply mission surely does not provide support for the policymakers attempting to sustain the program, it nonetheless appears to have had a negligible effect upon the perceptions of its top-level supporters.

A cloud of debris marks the demise of SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket. Credit: NASA
A cloud of debris marks the demise of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket. Credit: NASA

Meanwhile, the Air Force has announced that it will stay the course with SpaceX, allowing the company to remain in competition with ULA for lucrative military launches despite the recent mishap. Both companies are expected to place bids in the coming months for the launch of GPS-3 navigational satellites, and the Air Force has made clear that it will not amend or otherwise alter its planned timeline for competition between the companies. As a reflection of good faith between SpaceX and the Air Force, Air Force specialists and analysts have been invited to participate in the accident review investigating the causes of CRS-7’s failure.

Also encouraging is that, despite the launch failure and despite SpaceX having a contract backlog of nearly 50 launches which will undoubtedly be pushed back further by delays, many of the company’s customers have come out with statements demonstrating their continuing support and loyalty. Equally encouraging is that, while a delay is to be expected before the return-to-flight of the Falcon 9, SpaceX has stated its hopes that such a delay won’t extend beyond a few months. SpaceX may be on track to launch CRS-8, another ISS resupply mission, in September; if not, the company at least expects a return-to-flight by the end of 2015.

What’s it Mean for Commercial Spaceflight?

For all of the areas of concern that have been exacerbated by the failure of CRS-7, there have been equally encouraging signs from important stakeholders in the commercial space that the accident won’t deter or undermine the continued development of the industry. Yet this by no means suggests that the explosion was a trivial or passing event, that there won’t be any market and industry ramifications, and that SpaceX hasn’t lost a considerable portion of the momentum and industry clout that had carried it into CRS-7. Events such as these are moments for reflection and recalculation – and for good reason. While the evolution of the commercial spaceflight industry and commercial cargo program will emerge and continue from the failure of CRS-7 rather unscathed, such will likely not be the case should these accidents continue to happen.

So what does SpaceX’s failure mean for commercial spaceflight?

For one, much of the perceived momentum carrying the commercial space industry, and especially SpaceX, forward has evaporated among the clouds of debris raining down upon Florida’s coast. SpaceX had, until this moment, been seen by many as a promising company of rigorous standards and innovative practices; for some, it was the company that held the promise of carrying the private individual into space. While the failure of CRS-7 has not completely tarnished SpaceX’s image or reputation, it has brought its legions of supporters back to the reality that space is difficult and that no company, regardless of rhetoric or promises, will always deliver. How this diminishing of enthusiasm and shifting of perceptions will manifest itself in the market remains to be seen, but it should be expected that ULA and other players in the industry will be better poised to combat and stave off the challenge that SpaceX represents. While SpaceX’s current customers have reaffirmed their loyalty for the company, it should not be immediately expected that future or potential customers will share the same level of support. At the least, the promise of “New Space” is, through events such as this, beginning to dim.

To that end, SpaceX will struggle with its continuing efforts toward innovating the launch industry and driving down market prices so long as delays continue. The company has relied upon commercial launches to test its reusability systems; such launches, which have recently employed the Falcon 9’s booster-return systems, were simultaneously market ventures and technological demonstrations. Until launches start again, SpaceX will be incapable of proving the capabilities of its innovative systems; until those capabilities are proven, or until other companies take up the goal of technological innovation, the commercial launch market will likely remain generally stagnant. As such, prices for space will likely remain high as well. Related, the costs to SpaceX in ensuring that the failure which destroyed CRS-7 doesn’t happen again will likely drive up the price of its launch services. As the case of ULA has demonstrated, ensuring flawless launch reliability will necessarily make those launches more expensive. SpaceX will, moving forward, need to strike a balance between guaranteeing the reliability of its systems while also ensuring that its reputation as a low-cost launch provider is maintained and sustained; doing so will be a difficult, though perhaps not impossible, task.

Yet the failure of SpaceX’s CRS-7, like the failure of Orbital’s Antares rocket last October, will not hamper the continuation of the commercial crew and cargo program. Despite tensions over its funding within the political establishment, the commercial program represents an important and positive new direction for NASA and, by extension, American spaceflight – indeed, one which is necessary considering the current capabilities and priorities of the American space program. It enjoys high-level support within the industry and space establishment, a reflection of the perceived past value and future successes of the policy. So long as the commercial program continues, as it will, the commercial space industry will enjoy the benefits that come with close collaboration, technical support, and, most importantly, financial investment from NASA. These benefits will expand the capabilities and capacities of commercial space players, enabling them to serve a wider variety of customers. From this will come the continuing development of outer space by commercial actors, including SpaceX. And from this continuing development will come an increased desire and need for access to space, which will catalyze even further growth within the industry.

Space is hard, and no company, even SpaceX, gets it right every single time. While the explosion of CRS-7 has opened room for much concern over the future of the industry, the company, and the commercial program, all signs point to the event being of negligible lasting significance. The commercial space industry has experienced a temporary setback, one of some importance, but not one that will debilitate it moving forward. As many space and industry insiders understand, and as many of the spaceflight enthusiasts disenchanted by the CRS-7 mission should recognize, the prevailing, and perhaps most realistic, motto for humanity’s foray into space is “per aspera ad astra” – “through hardships, to the stars.”

The FY16 Budget for Humanitarian Development in Review, Pt. 1: Major Initiatives and Multi-Country Programs

With the release of the White House’s FY16 budget request, the priorities of the Obama Administration with regard to the development of democracy, governance, and human rights in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) have come to light; naturally, development work and humanitarian aid projects are reliant upon funding in order to implement their various programs and accomplish their goals. The FY16 budget has thus given analysts much to work with and think about when it comes to deciphering the United States’ interests in the Middle East and North Africa and its commitment to furthering progress in Middle Eastern and North African society. The Project on Middle East Democracy’s annual review of the federal budget and appropriations outlines the allocations of funds to the various actors working within the MENA region to further the realization of humanitarian aims and goals. Accordingly, it reveals some significant insights into the overall nature, scope, capacity, and direction of the American effort to impart meaningful change and produce tangible progress in the status of Middle Eastern civil society, human rights, and development.

This series of blog posts utilizes the Project on Middle East Democracy’s annual review of the FY16 budget to outline the most important and significant aspects of the proposed budget for the United States’ development and humanitarian mission in the MENA region. These posts will discuss the funding and direction given to the United States’ major MENA initiatives, multi-country accounts, and programs; the status of bilateral aid and assistance to countries in the region; and the broader “bigger picture” implications of the foreign assistance and aid budget with regard to the changing nature of Middle Eastern and North African affairs and the Obama Administration’s evolving foreign policy in the Middle East. This first blog post outlines the budgetary allocations requested for the United States’ major multi-country programs – the Middle East Partnership Initiative, the USAID Middle East Regional, the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor at the Department of State, the Near East Regional Democracy Program, and the National Endowment for Democracy.

The Middle East Partnership Initiative

The Administration’s FY16 budget requests $70 million for the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI), a renewal of FY15 funding levels, although policymakers suggest that the actual level of spending may be reduced quite significantly; this reduction in tangible funding may be a strategic decision based on how best to allocate remaining available funds across the Office of Near East Affairs Assistance Coordination’s various programs. Either way, under the FY16 budget request, MEPI is tasked with continuing to support active citizen engagement in government affairs, promoting political competition, supporting political and social freedoms, promoting political competition, and improving the regulatory environment for small and medium enterprises. Up to 8.5$ million has been requested to support MEPI’s Local Grants Program, which provide direct grants and local funding to communities in Yemen, Tunisia, Morocco, and Egypt, and for its student exchange programs. $10 million is expected to be renewed for MEPI’s funding of scholarships.

Concerns and criticisms have been raised about MEPI’s recent reorganization within the State Department’s bureaucracy, in which it has been placed under the purview of the State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs. As MEPI activities will conform to joint assistance strategies and be complementary to other State Department and USAID bilateral activities, there are fears that MEPI is losing its identity as a strong pro-reform voice. Some raise issue that MEPI’s reorganization will impact its effectiveness as an agile, politically independent assistance tool. In light of these concerns, MEPI’s role will likely evolve moving forward, with a decreasing budget in-line with that of other regional multi-country development accounts and a greater emphasis placed on funding direct local grants to civil society rather than to large international NGOs.

USAID Middle East Regional

The FY16 budget further requests $40 million for USAID Middle East Regional (MER) funding. Middle East Regional is the term used by USAID for its allocation of funds to the MENA region outside of bilateral assistance packages to individual countries; MER funds allow USAID to carry out regional or multi-country programs as well as programs in countries lacking a USAID mission while also complimenting bilateral foreign assistance initiatives. Over the past few years, funding for MER has steadily increased, from $17.7 million in FY13 to $30 million in FY14 and FY15, to $40 million in FY16. Of that $40 million requested for FY16, $1.2 million is requested for “peace and security,” $8 million for the “Governing Justly and Democratically” initiative, and the remaining $30.8 million is for other economic assistance programs and various management expenses. MER funding will further support regional water, health, and gender-based violence programs. Within that allocation of FY16 funds, $20 million is marked for the Office of Technical Services (ME/TS), which informs USAID’s work in the region through needs analyses and assessment; program planning, design, and evaluation; strategic planning; compliance with regulatory requirements; and implementation of USAID Forward reforms. $5 million is designated for continued support to Civil Society Innovation Centers, which seek to develop and enhance the operating space for civil society in the region.

Ultimately, the growth of the MER program and increasing funding for MER gives USAID a source of funds more flexible than those that USAID programs out of bilateral accounts, enabling it to respond and adapt to changes on the ground in a more comprehensive and effective manner. The goals and programming of MER have shifted considerably over the past few years, with a heightened focus on technical support and analysis as well as a broader contribution to GJD funding and support for civil society.

Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor at the Department of State

The State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (DRL) has long been in the lead within the U.S. government for advancing human rights and democracy, and carries out foreign assistance programs focused on supporting democracy, governance, human rights, and labor. DRL’s focus has long been on providing assistance in conflict zones and other non-permissive environments, in contrast to USAID programming that often requires host government cooperation. $60 million is requested for DRL’s programming budget in the FY16 budget, the same level requested in FY15. $9 million is requested for DRL’s Global Internet Freedom programs, supplemented by $7 million from the Near East Regional Democracy Program and $2 million from the USAID’s Bureau for Democracy, Conflict, and Humanitarian Assistance. $6 million is also requested for DRL’s rapid response programs, including Lifeline, which provides emergency assistance to civil society organizations; Dignity for All, which supports LGBT activists; Justice Defenders, which supports human rights lawyers; the Protection for Journalists Initiative; and the Global Gender-Based Violence Initiative, which helps survivors of gender-based violence. Lifeline also provides funding for short-term initiatives at the local, regional, and international levels that help civil society organizations fight against regulatory and extralegal barriers to their work.

DRL has positioned itself as an agile, flexible assistance mechanism that is able to quickly respond to events on the ground while working in difficult environments. Significantly, it works with civil society based in Syria and has sustained civil society work in non-permissive environments through its Human Rights Defenders Fund. As more countries in the MENA region become antagonistic in their policies and attitudes toward outside support of civil society, DRL’s continuing work providing such assistance gives it an important leading role in achieving the aims of civil development. That DRL takes on policy mandates to provide assistance on issues seen as controversial or threatening by repressive governments means that it serves a vital role in the advancing of America’s global humanitarian interests.

However, although Congress has continually granted DRL funding greater than that requested by the administration, there has been a steady decline in the level of funding requested specifically for DRL. This, coupled with an increased number of mandates, has put a strain on DRL’s resources and capabilities. DRL has been forced to cobble together the requisite funds to support its various programs; indeed, DRL is responsible for programming as much as $130-140 million each year. Much of its funding must come from sources outside of the federal budget to meet the totals required. Accordingly, closing the gap between DRL’s budget request and its actual budget will be a key step moving forward in regularizing the bureau’s budget and sustaining its ability to conduct its important work.

Near East Regional Democracy Program

The Near East Regional Democracy Program (NERD) was established in 2009 to support democracy and human rights in the MENA region, particularly in Iran. The program focuses primarily on activities that do not require an in-country presence, for programming cannot be conducted inside Iran; among NERD’s programs are support for media, technology, and internet freedoms along with conferences and trainings for Iranian activities that take place outside Iran. NERD funding is not legally required to be spent within Iran, or any other particular country for that matter, although the sentiment of policymakers has held firm that Iran should be NERD’s main area of focus.

The FY16 budget for NERD stands at $30 million, the same amount as in FY15. However, its funding devoted to civil society work is at $21 million, a decrease from the FY12 request of $26 million. Of the FY16 budget request, $7 million is intended to support internet freedom programming, $5 million is to support civil society capacity-building, and another $7 million is to go toward assistance in providing advocacy and awareness training to increase respect for the universal principles of human rights. A further $5 million will support activities that address human rights abuses and support access to justice.

NERD’s overall funding levels have decreased modestly over time, from a $40 million request in FY10 to the $30 million in FY16. However, NERD programming is starting to be seen as an effective model of work that could be emulated in other parts of the region, where the space for democracy and governance work is rapidly closing. It is yet unclear how the Iranian nuclear deal will impact NERD’s programming and activities directed toward Iran, or whether it will enable the expansion of NERD’s programming beyond its traditional focus on Iran.

National Endowment for Democracy

Although, as a nongovernmental organization, the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) is not a part of the U.S. government, it receives nearly all of its funding in an annual congressional appropriation and is thus subject to congressional oversight. The administration has requested $103.5 million for NED in FY16, although Congress is likely to grant funds in excess of this amount due to strong bipartisan support for the institution. Congress allocated $135 to NED in FY15, a 30 percent increase over the administration’s FY14 and FY15 requests. $100 million of this money is to go to the “traditional and customary manner,” which entails support for core institutes supporting NED’s mission, such as the International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute, the Center for International Private Enterprise, and the Solidarity Center. The remaining $35 million is designated for other democracy, human rights, and rule of law programs.

NED support for the work of independent civil society has become important amid the growing reluctance by U.S. government agencies to support independent organizations undertaking work that could be considered controversial or politically sensitive by host governments. NED’s support provides key demographics with the skills needed to make a positive impact on civil society in repressive regimes and in restrictive environments. NED has worked to adapt to rapid changes on the ground over the past few years, and has played a constructive role in building support for democratic values in conflict zones such as in Iraq and Syria.

Conclusions and Implications

Despite the 2011 “Arab Spring” showing that corrupt, authoritarian regimes across the MENA region could not maintain stability indefinitely through repression, the challenging years of political upheaval and change that have followed have seen a resurgence in authoritarianism and violence. The rise of violent extremists groups such as the Islamic State and the increasing efforts of regional governments to crackdown on independent civil society have hampered the work of organizations working to advance the goals of democracy and development. The United States, in partnering with repressive regimes for the achievement of broader regional security aims, has meanwhile grown more cautious of its support for independent civil society; this caution is driven both by a desire to avoid antagonizing allied host governments and a fear of putting in danger local participants in its civil society programming.

Although the major multi-country initiatives and programs which the United States funds should expect to receive a roughly equivalent level of funding in FY16 as in FY15, the effects of the United States’ growing hesitance toward advancing civil society and democracy programming is clear; an increased attention on and allocated resources toward security and military issues have diverted high-level policy attention away from the support for regional democracy and human rights. There are outstanding concerns that mechanisms such as MEPI are losing their identity and focus as reform-driven advocates of civil society by virtue of their reorganization and shifting of priorities within the State Department bureaucracy. Organizations such as the DRL, which focus on political programming that may be controversial to the states in which they operate, still experience considerable budgetary gaps in the FY16 proposal, gaps which may impede their capacity to effectively produce tangible change. Some organizations, such as NERD, have not expanded into civil society-building operations across the broader MENA region, despite demonstrating the effectiveness of their model. Accordingly, while the United States still does finance and support civil society and democracy building in the MENA region to a significant degree through these mechanisms and multi-country programs, that support is hesitant, underwhelming, and regressing rather than increasing. Without a greater high-level policy emphasis placed on democracy and civil society building and the advancement of human rights, these programs are unlikely to make great breakthroughs in advancing these goals in the region, but rather should be expected to simply sustain the United States’ current regional efforts, however minimal they should be, for the coming fiscal year.

Also of note is the fact that U.S. democracy and governance programming in the MENA region is shifting focus towards issues of governance at the local level rather than at the national level. A continuing and even growing emphasis is being placed on local grants and grassroots training, education, and confidence building as strategies for developing regional democracy. This attention on local governance may be important and crucial for laying the groundwork for democratic changes from the ground up. However, in the longer term, if such efforts are to ultimately succeed in truly fostering and bringing about democratic change, they will need to be accompanied by action on the part of the U.S. government and development organizations to pressure national governments to empower local institutions. However, considering the changing priorities of American foreign aid and funding, to be discussed in later blog posts, the potential for such to be the case does not appear promising.