The past two weeks have contained a trio of important NASA r


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NASA's remembrance patches for Apollo, Columbia, and Challenger

For space watchers, the start of any year always brings about a combination of endless possibilities and somber reflection. That's because for all the stuff we're getting excited about in the next 12 months (space coffee included, we guess), it's impossible for NASA admirers to let the last weeks of January pass by without stopping for a moment.

Three high profile days of NASA remembrance—January 27 (Apollo 1), January 28 (Challenger), and February 1 (Columbia)—all occurred within the last two weeks. And with the 50th anniversary of the Apollo program's greatest triumph on the calendar for later in 2019, these tragedies come to mind more than usual. They remind everyone about the immense risk involved with pushing mankind into the heavens, and they speak to the unbelievable effort and resilience involved in pushing space development forward over the decades.

So for this week's Orbital Transmission, we're engaging in our normal late January space routine—thinking back and looking forward simultaneously. The space industry doesn't always make it easy to pause (this year China already did the Pink Floyd thing, landing on the far side of the moon!), but taking a moment for perspective will only further emphasize the amazing accomplishments to come.

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Orbital Transmission 02.05.19
The Apollo 1 crew

As we remember Apollo 11, don't forget Apollo 1

If you missed its broadcast premiere on NASA TV last night, know our docuseries on NASA's early days of spaceflight—Apollo: The Greatest Leap—is available to stream for free anytime right here. That project begins with Apollo 1, the tragic fire that took the lives of astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee in January 1967. Especially in that pioneering era, everyone involved seemed to recognize the risk involved with spaceflight (“The conquest of space is worth the risk of life,” Grissom famously said). But the impact of that incident has never faded from NASA's memory—remembrances still happen today, and the lessons learned from Apollo 1 were pivotal to Apollo 11 taking that step for mankind 50 years ago.

Virgin Galactic's VSS Unity spacecraft

Lots will happen in 2019, maybe even citizens to space

2018 had some great moments in spaceflight, such as the dazzling launch of the Falcon Heavy rocket in February and the flight of Virgin Galactic's VSS Unity spacecraft to 82km above the Earth's surface. But in many ways, 2018 was a developmental year for what could be some amazing spaceflight achievements in 2019. The small sat launch race will heat up, Boeing and SpaceX are racing to be the commercial crew launch provider for NASA (with tests set to happen this spring/summer), and maybe even space tourism will finally become reality. That VSS spacecraft and its (space-ish) heights seem closest to ready, and by the end of 2019 they hope some citizens have the experience.

A NASA rendering of what might have been with Columbia

Wherever NASA goes next, Columbia helped shape it

Sixteen years ago on February 1, 2003, NASA's modern spaceflight program changed dramatically through the tragedy of Columbia. One of the external tanks—a staple piece of hardware used for generations—had failed. It would send NASA into a decade of retrofitting and reprioritizing as the agency dealt with natural disasters and changing political climates, too. Fast forward to 2019, and it's still unclear what the US's longterm priorities in space might be, but NASA is pushing to finish the Space Launch System wherever its astronauts may target. 

SpaceX's Raptor engine

The most exciting 2019 space event may be test fire

The 2019 space industry watch season has officially started. Yes, SpaceX previously launched its first rocket (a Falcon 9) last month, but just this weekend a bit of engine test fire may be the more exciting (and important long-term) development. At the company's McGregor, Texas facility over Super Bowl weekend, the team worked through Saturday and Sunday in order to test its Raptor engine—it successfully fired. The upside here is that the engine will power the company's Super Heavy rocket during launch and the Starship spacecraft in space—two pieces of hardware SpaceX hopes can eventually pioneer space exploration to Mars.

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