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.