Hello and welcome back to TechCrunch Space. Last week, NASA held its annual day of remembrance to commemorate all those who lost their lives in the pursuit of human space exploration -- including the crews of Apollo 1, Challenger and Columbia. The day is a sobering reminder of the perils of spaceflight and the dear costs we've paid to extend humanity into the stars. More on that below.
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Ingenuity, the small helicopter that’s been buzzing around the red planet for almost three years, took its final flight late last week. NASA announced on Thursday that at least one of the helicopter’s carbon fiber rotor blades was damaged during its last mission, grounding it for good.
To say that Ingenuity had a remarkable run is a bit of an understatement: The helicopter was launched as a technology demonstration mission, with engineers hoping to achieve up to five flights with the vehicle. In the end, the helicopter ended up performing a staggering 72 flights, collectively traveling 11 miles and climbing up to 79 feet at the highest altitude.
Goodbye, Ingenuity. Thanks for everything.
NASA's Ingenuity helicopter in flight on Mars. Image Credits: NASA
This week's top launch goes to Virgin Galactic, which successfully pulled off its eleventh suborbital spaceflight on Friday. The company's VSS Unity plane took off from New Mexico's Spaceport America carrying four private astronaut customers, whose names were mysteriously not disclosed prior to the mission. After the mission ended, Virgin announced the customers names and revealed that the crew included the first Ukrainian woman to go to space.
The company's next mission is expected in the second quarter of this year.
— Virgin Galactic (@virgingalactic) January 26, 2024
Eric Berger recounts what happened after astronaut Taylor Wang encountered issues with his experiment onboard the ISS; how he became severely depressed; how he threatened mission controllers in Houston with "not going back" to Earth; and how he started exhibiting unnerving interest in the Space Shuttle's hatch, to the degree that other astronauts on the ISS with him duct-taped it closed.
"This is not a particularly pleasant issue to talk about, so NASA, SpaceX, and the people who fly on the vehicles generally don't. But it does seem like something the space community should probably have a discussion about as access to space broadens. With Crew Dragon, SpaceX regularly sends civilians to the International Space Station and on free-flying missions. Most of these people have not been subjected to the rigorous psychological tests that Shuttle astronauts receive. Boeing's Starliner, SpaceX's Starship, and other vehicles will, in the not-too-distant future, only deepen the pool of orbital fliers. Both Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic already fly people almost entirely without training on brief suborbital hops.
And that's not necessarily a bad thing. The whole point of lower-cost access to space is that we're going to have more people in space, doing cool things, and pushing out the frontier. But space is a harsh, incredibly forbidding domain. It can play with the mind."
Taylor Wang on the Space Shuttle. Image Credits: NASA
This week in space history
This week, we're remembering the men and women who lost their lives on the Space Shuttle Challenger, in addition to the other astronauts who died in the course of spaceflight.
On January 28, 1986, Space Shuttle Challenger exploded just 73 seconds after lift-off, killing all seven crew members. The disaster resulted in a nearly three-year moratorium on Space Shuttle missions and subsequent investigations identified myriad issues within NASA culture that indirectly or directly led to the disaster.
The crew of the Space Shuttle Challenger. Image Credits: NASA