The Future of Space Travel, as Told by NASA

Ever since we were kids, NASA has been an ever present part of our lives.  Their breakthroughs in space travel and observation have propelled humanity to new levels of understanding, in regards to the universe around us and our place in it.

They were responsible for some of the most dramatic moments in history. We all rejoiced during the 1969 moon landing and sat in shared disbelief after the explosion of the Challenger Shuttle in 1986.

The landscape of space travel today looks vastly different than the one in previous decades.  The shuttle program has been discontinued and the only country now doing regular manned trips into space is the Russians and most countries that go up, hitch a ride with them.  A very different picture than the race in the 1960’s to beat the Soviet’s to the moon.

Further to that, private companies that include SpaceX and Virgin Galactic are taking over near-Earth orbit space travel while NASA handles how to get us farther into space.  A pretty interesting combo.

To find out what’s next on the universal landscape in regards to exploring the universe, Techvibes spoke with Sarah Ramsey a spokesperson for NASA on what’s next.

Techvibes: NASA has significantly changed its focus over the years since the shuttle program had been discontinued.  What are NASA’s current short-term and long-term goals are when it comes to space travel?

Sarah Ramsey: We are on a journey to Mars, building on more than 50 years of Mars exploration, beginning with Mariner 4, and robotic explorers on the surface of the Red Planet since 1997.

We are building the world’s most powerful rocket (Space Launch System) and the crew capsule (Orion) that will carry astronauts on long duration deep space missions, including an asteroid and on to Mars in the 2030s.

For 15 years, we have had a continuous human presence on the International Space Station, and we have committed to at least through 2024. Our commercial crew partners are working toward launching astronauts from American soil to the space station starting in 2017.

TV: What technological advancements and areas of science do you believe will propel us into the next level of space travel?

SR: There are a broad range of technological advancements being evaluated to propel us into the next level of space travel.  Keeping the crew alive and healthy for extended duration space flights requires advances in radiation protection and improved reliability in life support systems.

Advanced propulsion systems, such as electric or nuclear propulsion, are needed to be able to transport the several tons of equipment and supplies from Earth to deep space destinations such as Mars, as well as reducing the time needed to get to the destination.

Greatly improved data communications, such as optical systems, will enhance the data and images able to be returned.  Entry, descent, and landing multiple tons of equipment and supplies on Mars requires significantly advanced methods such as hypersonic decelerator and supersonic retro-propulsion technologies.

The desire to land in increasingly scientifically interesting locations results in the need for precision landing techniques with closed-loop control to enable a safe landing in an area with large landing hazards.

TV: Currently NASA and other government space agencies are utilizing services from the Russians to get into space.  Will this continue in the future and if not, how will American astronauts get into space moving forward?

SR: American companies are now ferrying supplies to our astronauts on the Space Station from the United States, and our partners Boeing and SpaceX continue to make great progress toward certification to safely transport our astronauts to the Space Station from U.S. soil, ending our sole reliance on Russia.

TV: Are there any plans to go back to the moon?

SR: NASA is not currently working on a human mission to the surface of the moon. However, building on the progress of NASA’s partnerships with the U.S. commercial space industry to deliver cargo and soon, astronauts to low Earth orbit, NASA has competitively selected three U.S. industry partners to develop robotic lunar lander technologies. These partners are addressing NASA and private sector interest in accessing the lunar surface.

NASA also is leading development of Resource Prospector, a rover equipped with a suite of instruments to locate and excavate volatiles such as hydrogen, oxygen and water from a polar region on the moon.

TV: Is NASA currently planning any projects that have the intention of looking for life on other planets, intelligent or otherwise?

SR: NASA is on a Journey to Mars. Within our lifetime, we want to be able to answer some fundamental questions: Was Mars home to microbial life? Is it today? Could it be a safe home for humans one day? What can it teach us about Earth’s past, present and future?

Today, our robotic scientific explorers are paving the way. Together, humans and robotics will pioneer Mars and the solar system. The next Mars Rover scheduled for launch in 2020 is under construction, and NASA’s Insight Mission to study the interior of the Red Planet will now launch in 2018.

NASA has also brought together experts spanning a variety of scientific fields for an unprecedented initiative dedicated to the search for life on planets outside our solar system. The Nexus for Exoplanet System Science, or “NExSS”, hopes to better understand the various components of an exoplanet, as well as how the planet stars and neighbor planets interact to support life. Earth, planetary, heliophysics, and astrophysics scientists are developing ways to confirm the habitability of worlds found around other stars and search for biosignatures, or signs of life.

The key to this effort is understanding how biology interacts with the atmosphere, geology, oceans, and interior of a planet, and how these interactions are affected by the host star. This “system science” approach will help scientists better understand how to look for life on exoplanets.