Few would deny that NASA had a very good 2022. The year started with the successful deployment and commissioning of the James Webb Space Telescope, which by the middle of the year was ready to take its first science images that stunned even astronomers who spent years working on the mission. Near the end of the year, the Space Launch System finally lifted off on its inaugural flight, sending the Orion spacecraft around the moon on a nearly flawless uncrewed mission. In between, the DART spacecraft slammed into an asteroid, demonstrating a way to protect the planet from an impact.
NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in a video that 2022 “will go down in the history books as one of the most accomplished years in all of NASA’s history.” That might be a bit of a stretch — 1969 would like to have a word — but last year certainly was one of the best in recent memory.
The successes of 2022 naturally prompt a question: what will NASA do for an encore in 2023? The hard reality for NASA is that the new year lacks many of the high-profile milestones of the past year, yet is essential for the agency’s plans for the years to come.
There will be, for example, no launch of the SLS in 2023: its next flight, on the Artemis 2 mission, is likely no earlier than late 2024. While the James Webb Space Telescope will continue cranking out images in 2023, the biggest science mission to launch in the next year is Psyche, whose launch slipped from 2022 because of software testing delays and which won’t arrive at its destination, the asteroid of the same name, until 2029.
Nelson’s comments about 2022 came in a video previewing what the agency had in store in 2023. “So much to look forward to in ’23,” he said. The three-minute video had to dig deep, though, to identify highlights for the coming year, including awarding a services contract for a lunar rover for later Artemis missions and unveiling a prototype of a spacesuit for those future Artemis moonwalks.
Awarding a contract and revealing a spacesuit aren’t nearly as exciting as, say, deploying a giant space telescope or launching a monster rocket, but they are essential to NASA’s long-term plans to return humans to the moon. That is, in many respects, a central theme for NASA in 2023: laying the groundwork for Artemis missions launching in 2024 and beyond.
Early in 2023, for example, NASA will name the four astronauts who will fly on Artemis 2, the first crewed Orion mission that will go around the moon. By June, the agency will select a second crewed lunar lander developer for Artemis missions starting late this decade. The first Commercial Lunar Payload Services missions, by Astrobotic and Intuitive Machines, are scheduled to launch this year, carrying NASA payloads to the surface of the moon and, in one case, a smallsat lunar orbiter to search for water ice at the poles.
Perhaps the biggest milestone of the coming year for Artemis was something not included in the NASA video: the first orbital launch of SpaceX’s Starship vehicle. Starship is a commercial venture, but it is also critical for NASA’s plans to land humans on the moon as soon as 2025. NASA has awarded SpaceX more than $4 billion to develop lunar lander versions of Starship that will be flown on Artemis 3 and 4. A successful launch will provide NASA reassurances that Starship lunar lander development is on track, while continued delays, or explosive setbacks, will raise doubts about NASA’s plans.
There will be other non-Artemis milestones for NASA in 2023, including the first crewed flight of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner and the return of the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft with samples from the asteroid Bennu. The biggest measure of success for NASA in the next year, though, is how well its activities position the agency for Artemis missions that can make 2024, 2025 and beyond the most accomplished years in all of NASA’s history.
Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. His Foust Forward column appears in every issue of the magazine. This column ran in the January 2023 issue.