As U.S. President George W. Bush prepared to step onto the stage at NASA headquarters Jan. 14 to issue a call for returning to the Moon and venturing on to Mars, a robotic rover dubbed Spirit was already preparing to roll off its landing platform onto the surface of the red planet.
Ten days earlier, Spirit had become the first NASA craft since 1997 to reach the surface in good working order, landing safely in Gusev Crater just south of the martian equator.
By year's end Spirit and its twin, Opportunity, would still be going strong, having found the best evidence to date that water once flowed freely on Mars.
The successful landings were a triumph for a space agency still stung by the back-to-back losses of a Mars probe and lander in 1999. But the loss of several hundred million dollars worth of hardware four years before was a small matter compared to the more recent loss that framed Bush's landmark address to NASA and the nation.
Bush called that day for a renewed spirit of exploration, one that would honor the men and women who died aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia in February 2003 by carrying humankind "forward into the universe, to gain a new foothold on the Moon, and to prepare for new journeys to worlds beyond our own."
Specifically, Bush laid out a long-term vision for space exploration that started with completing assembly of the international space station, building a new Crew Exploration Vehicle, and then returning humans to the Moon by 2020 as the first confidence-building step towards destinations such as Mars.
Two days after Bush laid out "a great and unifying mission for NASA" in a speech that acknowledged "that space travel brings great risks," NASA announced that due to safety concerns it was canceling a long planned space shuttle mission to service the Hubble Space Telescope.
The public and political outcry -- led by Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) and others -- hounded the space agency for much of the year, dying down only after NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe, who would eventually resign in December to become chancellor of Louisiana State University, agreed to take a serious look at building a robotic spacecraft to service the popular telescope. Congress called upon the National Academy of Sciences to weigh in on Hubble servicing and in December, a blue-ribbon committee of experts concluded that robotic servicing did not stand much chance of success and called for NASA to reinstate the shuttle mission if it truly wants to save Hubble. The committee also repudiated O'Keefe's assessment that sending a shuttle to Hubble was significantly more risky than flying to the space station, saying in its final report that any difference is "very small" and certainly justified "given the intrinsic value of a serviced Hubble." NASA was still assessing the report as the year drew to a close.
Louis Friedman, executive director of the Pasadena, Calif.-based Planetary Society, called NASA's Hubble decision "a major public relations flub" that knocked a lot of the luster off the president's newly announced vision for space exploration.
News media cast the Hubble as an early victim of the vision and members of Congress began asking pointed questions about what NASA's space exploration endeavor would cost in terms of future budgets and current programs.
By late July, the vision appeared to be in serious trouble. On a day that coincided with the 35th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing -- an occasion that some had hoped would draw out Bush to put in a public plug for the vision -- lawmakers in the House of Representatives cut $1.1 billion from the president's $16.2 billion budget request for NASA. Two months later, however, Senate appropriators put forward a NASA budget that would give Bush every dollar he asked for and more, but only by including $800 million in so called emergency funding. By the time the 109th Congress adjourned in early December, lawmakers sent to the president for his signature an omnibus spending bill that included all but $44 million of the amount that he had requested for NASA.
Elliot Pulham, president and chief executive officer of the Colorado Springs-based Space Foundation, said the NASA budget victory was one of the big surprises of 2004. "The thing I would have judged the most at risk was the ability to acquire full funding for the vision in an election year," he said
Pulham said he was also pleasantly surprised by how much progress NASA made transforming the vision into the makings of a real program. "When the vision was announced back in January, I expected this would lead to a typical NASA 'OK, we are going to implement this. Let's go create some viewgraphs!'" he said.
Instead, Pulham said, NASA created the Space Exploration Systems Directorate under retired Navy Rear Adm. Craig Steidle, a seasoned acquisition professional. Steidle started formulating requirements for the necessary hardware and by November had awarded $1 billion in technology development contracts. "That's a delightful surprise and I think it bodes well for the vision," Pulham said.
While the budget battle was being fought on Capitol Hill, NASA's cost estimates for returning the space shuttle to flight were skyrocketing. Technical setbacks and a busy hurricane season that battered Florida's Kennedy Space Center coincided to delay NASA's first space shuttle mission post-Columbia to no earlier than May 2005.
Marc Schlather, president of the grassroots lobbying group ProSpace, said he is worried that the vision is in danger of being overtaken by the shuttle and international space station (ISS) programs in the years ahead.
"Until NASA can get past the ISS and retire the shuttle and redirect those funds towards explorations, no real gains will be seen in terms of the vision," he said.
While Schlather complained that NASA's human spaceflight program continues to "spin its wheels," NASA's accomplishments on the science side of the agency have been "nothing short of spectacular."
Schlather pointed to the surprising longevity of the Mars Exploration Rovers and Cassini's successful arrival at Saturn in July as two of the major highlights of 2004. But they were not NASA's only successes. The space agency also launched SWIFT Gamma Ray Burst Explorer in November, broke long standing airspeed records with the X-43A hypersonics demonstrator and retrieved the Genesis solar wind sample return canister, although not as intact as it would have liked.