Today we launch an American astronaut and Russian cosmonaut to live and work in space for an entire year. It’s the first time an American astronaut will have been in space for that length of time. It’s an important stepping-stone on our journey to Mars and will give us detailed medical data recorded throughout the one-year expedition. President Obama recognized this significant American space exploration milestone in his State of the Union address this year, noting: “[We’re] pushing out into the solar system not just to visit, but to stay…as part of a reenergized space program.”
This mission is part of the critical roadmap we’ve been undertaking with bipartisan support since the President challenged us five years ago to plan for a human mission to an asteroid and later to Mars.
When American astronaut Scott Kelly is in space, he’ll not only carry out the research and technology demonstrations that our astronauts have been helping us develop during the past 14 years of continuous human habitation aboard the International Space Station (ISS), he’ll also participate in a unique experiment.
Scott has an identical twin brother, Mark – also an astronaut – who will be here on Earth. We’ll compare the brothers’ vital signs and learn how space affects the human body on orbit. Throughout Scott’s mission we’ll gain new, detailed insights on ways long-duration spaceflight can affect things like bone density, muscle mass, strength, vision and other aspects of human physiology. We’ll also look at mental changes and challenges astronauts may face when they embark on longer-duration missions.
We will also get an opportunity to see how microgravity affects the human genome. This information might affect every one of us on Earth as we get a unique insight into genomic changes.
Unfortunately, Scott won’t launch on this important mission from the United States on an American spacecraft. However, that’s not for a lack of trying on the part of the Obama Administration.
Five years ago, the President laid out a plan to ensure we had an American system to transport our astronauts to the International Space Station once the Bush Administration’s plan to retire the Space Shuttle went into effect. That plan looked to the ingenuity of U.S. industry to develop private space transportation systems to get crews to the ISS. Regrettably, Congress did not fully fund this plan and delayed its implementation until 2017. It is my hope that the plan is fully funded this year, as full funding this year is critical to ending our sole dependence on the Russians as soon as possible.
Kelly’s launch is one key aspect of NASA’s efforts to meet the President’s goal of a human mission to Mars, but much work is underway throughout the agency to meet this vision. Technology drives exploration and NASA has integrated its work to focus on developing the technologies to reach deeper into space. Our Space Launch System rocket, which will be the most powerful ever built, has moved from being a concept into development. Just this month we’ve tested the booster and the rocket engines for this powerful vehicle. The Orion spacecraft, in which astronauts will travel to farther destinations in deep space, performed flawlessly on its first flight test in December. We have completed the first round of detailed reviews and are now looking even closer at the heat shield through destructive evaluation. This data review will help us improve Orion’s safety and performance as we prepare for a crewed flight.
We’re also working on the advanced technologies for propulsion, landing and radiation shielding, among many others, that humans will need to travel farther than we ever have before. While that work is rapidly advancing, our commercial partners’ innovation will make it possible for the next generation of astronauts to travel once again to space on American systems. We couldn’t be more proud of our astronaut corps, our innovative engineers and scientists and the industrial gumption of our partners. Together, they’re helping to create a whole new segment of the economy that is driving the inspiration and competitiveness of the future.
Scott Kelly’s launch is more than simply one person’s journey to the International Space Station. At the end of his mission, he will become the record holder for longest stay in space by an American. But as he works off the Earth, for the Earth, he stands on the shoulders of the great NASA achievements that made the Space Station possible. He is helping us reach higher and take those next great leaps in exploration. His historic mission is one more sign that our nation’s space program is thriving and continues to lead the world.