NASA is developing the capabilities needed to send humans to an asteroid by 2025, and to Mars in the 2030s. 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). Astronauts on the ISS are proving many of the technologies and communications systems needed for human missions to deep space, including Mars. The ISS also advances understanding of how the body changes in space, and how to protect astronaut health.

Inside the Operations and Checkout Building high bay at Kennedy Space Center, technicians install a back shell tile panel onto the Orion crew module, and check the fit next to the middle back shell tile panel in preparation for Exploration Flight Test-1. (NASA/Dimitri Gerondidakis)

Astronauts aboard the Orion spacecraft will explore an 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, which will be necessary to send cargo as part of human missions to Mars. Beginning in 2018, the 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.

Orion and SLS

For the first time in a generation, NASA is building a new human spacecraft that will usher in a new era of space exploration. Orion will take astronauts farther than ever before. The Orion spacecraft, which will carry up to four astronauts, is the safest, most advanced spacecraft ever built, and will be flexible and capable enough to take humans to a variety of destinations. Orion will serve as the exploration vehicle that will carry the crew to space, provide emergency abort capability, sustain the crew during space travel, and provide safe re-entry from deep-space return velocities. It will incorporate advances in propulsion, communications, life support, structural design, navigation, and power, drawing from the extensive spaceflight experience of NASA and its industry partners.

Orion awaits the U.S. Navy’s USS Anchorage after splashing down in the Pacific Ocean. Orion launched into space on a two-orbit, 4.5-hour test flight. (U.S. Navy)

On December 5, 2014, Orion launched atop a Delta IV Heavy rocket from Cape Canaveral on a two-orbit, four-hour flight that tested many of the systems most critical to safety. The test evaluated launch and high-speed reentry systems such as avionics, attitude control, parachutes, and the heat shield. In the future, Orion will launch on the SLS heavy-lift rocket. More powerful than any rocket ever built, SLS will be capable of sending humans to deep-space destinations such as an asteroid and eventually Mars. Exploration Mission-1(EM-1) will be the first mission to integrate Orion and the Space Launch System. SLS offers the highest-ever payload mass, volume capability, and energy to speed missions through space. In 2015, NASA completed the critical design review for SLS — a first for a NASA exploration-class vehicle in almost 40 years — and continues to move forward with production of the launch vehicle.

A full-scale test version of the booster for the Space Launch System fired up for the second of two qualification ground tests. The first test was successfully completed in March 2015. When completed, two five-segment boosters and four RS-25 main engines will power the world’s most powerful rocket, with the Orion spacecraft atop. (Orbital ATK)

Orion’s first flight atop the SLS will not have humans aboard, but will pave the way for future missions with astronauts. Ultimately, it will help NASA prepare for missions to the Red Planet. During this flight, currently designated Exploration Mission-1, the spacecraft will travel thousands of miles beyond the Moon over the course of a three-week mission. Orion will stay in space longer than any ship for astronauts has done without docking to a space station, and return home faster and hotter than ever before.

“This is a mission that truly will do what hasn’t been done and learn what isn’t known,” said Mike Sarafin, EM-1 mission manager at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “It will blaze a trail that people will follow on the next Orion flight, pushing the edges of the envelope to prepare for that mission.”

Commercial Crew Program

NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP) is an innovative partnership to help the aerospace industry in the United States develop space transportation systems that can safely launch humans to low Earth orbit, and potentially astronauts to the International Space Station. Returning the capability to launch astronauts from American soil brings tremendous satisfaction for the team working toward this goal.

This was the first time NASA asked industry to take the lead in designing, building, and operating a space system that would carry astronauts. NASA offered its expertise in human spaceflight and wrote out the top-level requirements for safety and other considerations to prepare for flight tests. NASA will certify the vehicles for flight tests and finally operational missions. The companies apply their own knowledge and skills in designing, manufacturing, and running the systems. Ultimately, NASA will buy the flights as a service from the companies.

The upper and lower domes of the Starliner structural test article are joined inside the Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility. (Boeing)

“This is a new way of doing business, a new era in spaceflight, and when it’s all said and done, the Commercial Crew Program’s legacy will be bringing human spaceflight launches back to the US,” said Kelvin Manning, who was involved in the early planning days of the commercial crew effort, and is now associate director of Kennedy Space Center. “That’s a big deal, and our teams are making it happen.”

The commercial crew model tied together experts across the agency’s field centers to establish requirements and approval methods through four progressively more complex development contracts. “Human spaceflight has never been easy, and consequently, developing a new space transportation system continues to be a complex process,” Manning explained.

Eight companies played different parts in the CCP program as Space Act Agreements began with broad concepts and subsystems that evolved into completed systems, spacecraft, and launch vehicles that could meet the stringent demands of NASA’s human-rating process. For example, spacecraft had to have built-in launch escape systems, and rockets built to fire satellites into orbit had to have room for myriad sensors that could report health factors in split-second intervals, all for costs much lower than previous development efforts for such spacecraft.

A precursor effort, known as Commercial Crew Development or CCDev, was started in 2010 with five industry partners. But, the Commercial Crew Program was formally established in 2011. It took a total of five development and later certification phases to get to the point in September 2014 when NASA selected Boeing and SpaceX to build systems capable of carrying up to four astronauts plus time-critical cargo to the station. The Boeing CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX Crew Dragon were chosen to begin manufacturing for flight tests and prepare for crew rotation missions.