“Space exploration is all about inspiration, innovation, and discovery. It’s about imagining the future. It’s about taking new steps, and exploring beyond our limitations, and creating something bigger and grander and better than ourselves. Along the way, there are countless benefits, invaluable discoveries, and technologies borne through the trials of exploration that enhance our lives on Earth. That’s been true for NASA’s first 50 years. And I have no doubt that it will be true in the next five decades.”
-NASA Deputy Administrator Shana Dale
Much of the celebration of NASA’s 50th anniversary focuses on the myriad of technological achievements made during those first five decades. But as Deputy Administrator Dale points out, there are many reasons to believe that more benefits, discoveries, and technologies are yet to come.
Putting humans back on the Moon and eventually on Mars will take new technologies — many already in development, but some not even thought of yet. Future spacecraft will require novel propulsion technologies and instrumentation, new rovers and robots, medical breakthroughs that will enable humans to live on other planets, and even new materials.
And while NASA’s vision for exploration of space continues to be a primary focus, the next 50 years also will see the development of new technologies that will improve our quality of life on Earth. Satellites and other missions that help us understand the Earth’s climate and how it continues to change, improved energy sources, cleaner cars, and safer air travel are just a few areas in which NASA has already made great strides, and which will continue into the future.
In more than 40 years of spaceflight, a lot has changed. The space shuttle is a luxury ship compared to the Mercury capsules that carried the first American astronauts into space. One thing that has changed very little, however, is the way rockets work. While different fuels have been used, the basic concepts are the same. But NASA researchers are currently working to change that.
Today’s spacecraft are still traveling at about the same speed that John Glenn did in 1962. One way to change that is the Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket (VASIMR). Not only would VASIMR allow for faster space travel, but it would be able to travel to Mars much more quickly than a contemporary chemical-powered rocket, and then, once there, refuel on Mars for the return flight to Earth. The VASIMR engine could also help protect astronauts from the dangerous effects of radiation during their trip. In the less-distant future, VASIMR could help keep the International Space Station (ISS) in orbit without requiring extra fuel to be brought up from Earth.
VASIMR is a plasma-based propulsion system. An electric power source is used to ionize fuel into plasma. Electric fields heat and accelerate the plasma while the magnetic fields direct the plasma in the proper direction as it is ejected from the engine, creating thrust for the spacecraft. Possible fuels for the VASIMR engine include hydrogen, helium, and deuterium. Electrical power sources for the VASIMR engine could include nuclear power or solar panels.