Celebrating Earth Day

Observations of our home planet – and improving life on it for every resident – have always been at the core of NASA’s mission, and this year we’ll demonstrate that in multiple ways with a remarkable five Earth science launches.

NASA ventures into space not only to explore beyond Earth – we also venture into space to get to know Earth better.  It’s only from space that we really get to understand our home planet.

In 2014, for the first time in more than a decade, five NASA Earth Science missions will be launched into space in one year.  Together with NASA’s existing fleet of satellites, airborne missions, and researchers, these new missions will help answer some of the critical challenges facing our planet today and in the future: climate change; sea level rise; access to freshwater resources; and extreme weather events.

These new missions highlight NASA’s role as an innovation leader in Earth and climate science.  They’re helping us build a constantly expanding view of our planet from space and are backed by an exceptional team of experts and decades of innovative scientific and technical research.

Back in February, we successfully launched the Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) Core Observatory with Japan’s space agency.  GPM inaugurates an unprecedented international satellite constellation to produce frequent global observations of rainfall and snowfall — revolutionary new data that will help answer questions about our planet’s life-sustaining water cycle and improve weather forecasting and water resource management.

With the launch of two Earth science instruments to the International Space Station scheduled for this year — RapidScat and CATS — NASA will for the first time use our unique orbiting laboratory as a 24/7 Earth-observing platform to collect critical information about ocean winds, clouds, and aerosol particles for climate research, weather forecasting, and hurricane monitoring.

Advances in understanding carbon dioxide’s role in climate change are expected after NASA returns the Orbiting Carbon Observatory to flight in July after a 2009 launch failure.  OCO-2 will map the greenhouse gas globally, providing new insights into where and how it moves into and out of the atmosphere.

On a water planet like Earth, “following the water” is a massive undertaking but one that is essential to predicting the future of our climate and the availability of water resources around the globe.  With the launch of the Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) mission this year, NASA will track water into one of its last hiding places: Earth’s soil.  Coupled with GPM and the NASA Aquarius instrument measuring sea-surface salinity and the GRACE mission, which can detect changes in underground aquifers, we will have unprecedented measurements of our planet’s vital water cycle.

In 2014 NASA also wraps up a three-year campaign to study Atlantic hurricanes with unmanned aircraft and advances the development of a new satellite constellation — CYGNSS, to launch in 2016 — to probe these storms worldwide with GPS signals.

Climate change is the challenge of our generation, and NASA is uniquely qualified to take on the challenge of documenting and understanding these changes, predicting the ramifications, and sharing information about these changes for the benefit of society.

But beyond hard data, our Earth science missions help us appreciate our planet as the beautiful, fragile oasis it is.  From the Station we are fortunate to be able to really see and appreciate Earth as a beautiful and dynamic world worth protecting.  From our science satellites, we get a full and rich picture of how our planet works.

With the new tools we’re sending to space this year, NASA gives the world a better view of our planet.  Our new satellites and instruments aboard the Station join an already incredible fleet of Earth observation satellites examining ocean temperatures and salinity, changes in land cover and the atmosphere, climate change and many other factors that affect us all.

NASA research yields down-to-earth benefits such as improved environmental prediction, preparing for natural hazards, and anticipating the impacts of climate change.

You can be sure that we will continue to share this knowledge with the world to improve and protect life here on Earth.  I’d say that’s a perfect way to celebrate Earth Day, every day.


NASA Leading the Path to Mars

Image Credit: NASA/JPL
Image Credit: NASA/JPL

Last week, our solar system put on quite a show.  An alignment of Earth, moon and sun, produced a rare and spectacular blood moon lunar eclipse.  In addition, Mars made its closest approach to Earth since 2007.  And even as Mars drew tantalizingly close to Earth, NASA is drawing nearer to our goal of a human mission to the Red Planet.  This week, April 22-24, NASA joins with the non-profit group, Explore Mars, and more than 1,500 leaders from government, academia, and business at the Humans to Mars (H2M) Summit 2014 at George Washington University to discuss the value, challenges and status of America’s path to Mars.

While NASA has been on a path to Mars for decades with our earlier Mars rovers and orbiters, a critical national policy statement in support of our strategy was made on April 15, 2010 during a visit by President Obama to Kennedy Space Center where he challenged the nation to send humans to an asteroid by 2025 and to Mars in the 2030s.  Since then, NASA has been developing the capabilities to meet those goals through a bipartisan space exploration plan agreed to by the administration and Congress and embraced by the international space community.  While humans have been fascinated with Mars since the beginning of time, there are a number of very tangible reasons why we need to learn more about our closest planetary neighbor.  For one thing, Mars’ formation and evolution are comparable to Earth’s and we know that at one time Mars had conditions suitable for life.  What we learn about the Red Planet may tell us more about our own home planet’s history and future and help us answer a fundamental human question – does life exist beyond Earth?

While robotic explorers have studied Mars for more than 40 years, NASA’s path for the human exploration of Mars begins in low-Earth orbit aboard the International Space Station (ISS) our springboard to the exploration of deep space.  Astronauts aboard the ISS are helping us learn how to safely execute extended missions deeper into space.  We are guaranteed this unique orbiting outpost for at least another decade by the Administration’s commitment to extend the ISS until at least 2024.  This means an expanded market for private space companies, more groundbreaking research and science discovery in micro-gravity and opportunities to live, work and learn in space over longer periods of time.

Our next step is deep space, where NASA will send the first mission to capture and redirect an asteroid to orbit the moon.  Astronauts aboard the Orion spacecraft will explore the asteroid in the 2020s, returning to Earth with samples. This experience in human spaceflight beyond low-Earth orbit will help NASA test new systems and capabilities – such as Solar Electric Propulsion – we’ll need to support a human mission to Mars.  Beginning in 2017, NASA’s powerful Space Launch System (SLS) rocket will enable these “proving ground” missions to test new capabilities.  Human missions to Mars will rely on Orion and an evolved version of SLS that will be the most powerful launch vehicle ever flown.

A fleet of robotic spacecraft and rovers already are on and around Mars, dramatically increasing our knowledge about the Red Planet and paving the way for future human explorers.  The Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover measured radiation on the way to Mars and is sending back radiation data from the surface.  This data will help us plan how to protect the astronauts who will explore Mars.  Future missions like the Mars 2020 rover, seeking the signs of past life, also will demonstrate new technologies that could help astronauts survive on Mars.

Engineers and scientists around the country are working hard to develop the technologies astronauts will use to one day live and work on Mars, and safely return home and the Humans to Mars Summit this week is bringing together the best minds to share ideas about the path ahead.  NASA will be leading the charge.

It is important to remember that NASA sent humans to the moon by setting a goal that seemed beyond our reach.   In that same spirit, we have made a human mission to Mars the centerpiece of our next big leap into the unknown.  The challenge is huge, but we are making real progress today as a radiation monitor on the Curiosity rover records the Martian radiation environment that our crews will experience; advanced entry, descent and landing technologies needed for landing on Mars are ready for entry speed testing high-above the waters of the Pacific Ocean in June; Orion is finishing preparation for a heat shield test in December; and flight hardware for the heavy lift rocket necessary for Mars missions begins manufacture in New Orleans.  The future of space exploration is bright, and we are counting on the support of Congress, the scientific community and the American people to help us realize our goals.

The Path to Mars

I have had several opportunities the past few weeks to testify before Congress and explain to the American people the ambitious exploration plan NASA has been implementing the past few years.  It is a plan that reflects a steady stepping stone approach to meet President Obama’s challenge of advancing deep space technologies through our Asteroid Redirect Mission and sending humans to Mars in the 2030s.  Last year, 11 other space agencies agreed we share a common interest in advancing a unified space exploration strategy through their support of a Global Exploration Roadmap.

path to mars
NASA’s Path to Mars

The success of this plan begins with the International Space Station (ISS) — our springboard to the exploration of deep space.  The Obama Administration’s commitment to extend the ISS until at least 2024 will ensure that we have this unique orbiting outpost for at least another decade.  This means an expanded market for private space companies, more groundbreaking research and science discovery in micro-gravity and opportunities to live, work and learn in space over longer periods of time.

Astronauts aboard the ISS are helping us learn how to safely execute extended missions deeper into space.  Later this year, we will see Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1) of Orion.  NASA is pressing forward with development of the Space Launch System and Orion, preparing for an uncrewed mission of the two together in FY 2018.

The President’s 2015 budget also supports the Administration’s commitment that NASA be a catalyst for the growth of a vibrant American commercial space industry.

Already two companies – SpaceX and Orbital Sciences – are making regular cargo deliveries to the Space Station.  While the Russian Federal Space Agency remains a strong and reliable partner –this week NASA purchased more seats on the Soyuz spacecraft to help keep the Space Station operating—later this year NASA intends to select from American companies competing to send astronauts to the Station from American soil.  With the President’s request, we believe we can do this by the end of 2017.

In addition to continuing ISS research, strengthening partnerships with commercial and international partners, and building the next generation heavy-lift rocket and crew capsule to take our astronauts farther into space than ever before, our stepping-stone approach includes a plan to robotically capture a small near-Earth asteroid and redirect it safely to a stable orbit in the Earth-moon system where astronauts can visit and explore it.

Our Asteroid Redirect Mission will help us develop technologies, including Solar Electric Propulsion, needed for future deep space missions to Mars, as well as other NASA and commercial activities.  Under our asteroid initiative, we enhance detection and characterization of Near Earth Objects and improve understanding of asteroid threats to planet Earth.

NASA’s FY 2015 request continues support for science missions heading toward destinations such as Jupiter and Pluto.  It enables NASA to continue making critical observations of Earth and developing applications to directly benefit our nation and the world.  It maintains steady progress on the James Webb Space Telescope toward its 2018 launch.

Our aeronautics program will continue to focus on substantially reducing fuel consumption, emissions and noise to help make the Next Generation Air Transportation System – or NextGen – a reality.

All of NASA’s investments help drive technology and innovation, spur economic activity and create jobs.  That is why the President’s Opportunity, Growth, and Security Initiative would provide NASA nearly $900 million in additional funding in FY 15 to focus on specific areas where we can advance our priorities.

NASA sent humans to the moon by setting a goal that seemed beyond our reach.  In that same spirit, we have made a human mission to Mars the centerpiece of our next big leap into the unknown.  We are counting on the support of Congress and the American people to help us realize that goal.