The Next Era of Space Exploration Has Begun

Over the past few days, we’ve taken significant steps to implement America’s ambitious new space exploration plan, with progress made on our deep space exploration program, the rollout of another commercial rocket, and discoveries on Mars that will guide our way on future missions to the Red Planet with U.S. astronauts.

Today, we announced contract awards to improve the affordability, reliability, and performance of an advanced booster for the Space Launch System (SLS) — the rocket that will launch humans on missions of deep space exploration. The companies selected will develop engineering demonstrations and risk reduction concepts that will inform our work on this crucial system that will help us reach those destinations farther in our solar system.

The initial 77-ton (70-metric-ton) SLS configuration will use two 5-segment solid rocket boosters similar to those that helped power the space shuttle to orbit. The evolved 143-ton (130-metric-ton) SLS vehicle will require an advanced booster with more thrust than any existing U.S. liquid- or solid-fueled boosters. These new initiatives will demonstrate and examine advanced booster concepts and hardware demonstrations during a 30-month period.

The Orion multi-purpose crew vehicle in which astronauts will travel to these deep space destinations recently completed a set of tests to simulate various water landing scenarios to account for different velocities, parachute deployments, entry angles, wave heights, and wind conditions the spacecraft may encounter when landing in the Pacific Ocean. The next round of water impact testing is scheduled to begin in late 2013 using a full-sized model that was built to validate the flight vehicle’s production processes and tools. In 2014, Orion will make its first test flight to simulate re-entry from a lunar mission. As the next class of astronauts is selected, NASA continues to ensure they will be able to travel to low Earth orbit as well as other destinations farther into our solar system.

However, in order to focus on these deep space missions, we must have a successful partnership with private industry to take our astronauts and their cargo to the International Space Station. This is critically important to insource jobs, stimulate the economy, and bring crew and cargo launches back to U.S. soil, ensuring that American companies are transporting our astronauts and their supplies.

Today’s rollout of Orbital Sciences’ Antares test vehicle to the launch pad at the Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia marks yet another milestone in the development of the commercial cargo resupply program. Next Sunday in Florida, SpaceX plans to launch the first commercial resupply mission to the International Space Station, marking the return of cargo launches to America’s shores.

We look forward to Orbital soon joining SpaceX in regular service missions to the space station and helping our international crews continue the breakthroughs in human health and technology that will help us travel farther.

In addition to this extraordinary progress, all eyes continue to be on Mars — and the Curiosity rover does not disappoint. Last week, we announced an incredible new finding — one of many to come that we know will transform our understanding of the Red Planet and help pave the way for human landings there.

Curiosity has found evidence a stream once ran vigorously across the area on Mars where the rover is driving. Such a running stream could have provided an environment hospitable to life. There is earlier evidence for the presence of water on Mars, but this evidence — images of rocks containing ancient streambed gravels — is the first of its kind. During the two-year prime mission of the rover, researchers will use Curiosity’s 10 instruments to investigate whether other areas in Gale Crater have ever offered environmental conditions favorable for microbial life. All of this furthers scientific discovery, but also paves the way for human exploration in the not-too-distant future.

It’s been a great few days, but we’ve only just begun to carry out the ambitious exploration plan to which President Obama and Congress have agreed, positioning America to continue to lead the world in space and changing the way we see our home planet.