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Stay connected with NASA's human exploration activities in and beyond low Earth orbit.

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Why We Explore

why do we explore?
Why Do We Explore?

From the time of our birth, humans have felt a primordial urge to explore -- to blaze new trails, map new lands, and answer profound questions about ourselves and our universe.

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Exploration Technology Development Program (ETDP)

    Concept image: Human exploration of a near-Earth asteroid

    Human exploration of a near-Earth asteroid. Image credit: John Frassanito & Associates

    The Exploration Technology Development Program (ETDP) develops long-range technologies to enable human exploration beyond Earth orbit.

    ETDP also integrates and tests advanced exploration systems to reduce risks and improve the affordability of future missions.


    The projects in the Exploration Technology Development Program were formulated to address the high priority technology needs for human spaceflight. All technology projects are managed at NASA Centers.

    Concept image of in-space propulsion system

    Advanced In-Space Propulsion: This project develops concepts, technologies, and test methods for high-power electric propulsion and nuclear thermal propulsion systems to enable low-cost and rapid transport of cargo and crew beyond low Earth orbit.

    Concept image of autonomous systems

    Autonomous Systems and Avionics: This project develops and demonstrates integrated autonomous systems capable of managing complex operations in space to reduce crew workload and dependence on support from Earth. Technologies will address operations in extreme environments, efficient ground-based and on-board avionics systems and operations, and cost-effective human-rated software development.

    Concept image of Cryogenic Propellant Storage and Transfer system

    Cryogenic Propellant Storage and Transfer: This project develops technologies to enable long-duration storage and in-space transfer of cryogenic propellants. Technology development includes active cooling of propellant tanks, advanced thermal insulation, measurement of propellant mass, liquid acquisition devices, and automated fluid couplings for propellant transfer between vehicles.

    Entry, descent and landing technology

    Entry, Descent, and Landing (EDL) Technology: This project develops advanced thermal protection system materials, aerothermodynamics modeling and analysis tools, and concepts for aerocapture and atmospheric entry systems for landing large payloads safely and precisely on extra-terrestrial surfaces and returning to Earth.
    › Read about the Mars Science Laboratory Entry, Descent, and Landing Instrument (MEDLI) Suite

    Concept image of advanced spacesuit technology

    Extravehicular Activity Technology: This project develops component technologies for advanced space suits to enable humans to conduct "hands-on" surface exploration and in-space operations outside habitats and vehicles. Technology development includes portable life support systems, thermal control, power systems, communications, avionics, and information systems, and space suit materials.

    High-efficiency space power systems

    High-Efficiency Space Power Systems: This project develops technologies to provide low-cost, abundant power for deep-space missions, including advanced batteries and regenerative fuel cells for energy storage, power management and distribution, solar power generation, and nuclear power systems. A major focus will be on the demonstration of dual-use technologies for clean and renewable energy for terrestrial applications.

    Astronaut and Robonaut

    Human Robotic Systems: This project develops advanced robotics technology to amplify human productivity and reduce mission risk by improving the effectiveness of human-robot teams. Key technologies include teleoperation, human-robot interaction, robotic assistance, and surface mobility systems for low-gravity environments. Early demonstrations will focus on human teams interacting with multiple robotic systems. Longer-term demonstrations will focus on enabling operations in remote, hostile environments with limited support from Earth.
    › About Robonaut, NASA's dexterous humanoid robot

    In-Situ Resource Utilization system in analog field test

    In-Situ Resource Utilization: This project will enable sustainable human exploration by using local resources. Research activities are aimed at using lunar, asteroid, and Martian materials to produce oxygen and extract water from ice reservoirs. A flight experiment to demonstrate lunar resource prospecting, characterization, and extraction will be considered for testing on a future robotic precursor exploration mission. Concepts to produce fuel, oxygen, and water from the Martian atmosphere and from subsurface ice will also be explored.
    › About in-situ resource utilization (ISRU) field testing in Mauna Kea, Hawaii

    Concept image of life support system

    Life Support and Habitation Systems: This project develops technologies for highly reliable, closed-loop life support systems, radiation protection technology, environmental monitoring and control technologies, and technologies for fire safety to enable humans to live for long periods in deep-space environments.

    Concept image of spacecraft

    Lightweight Spacecraft Materials and Structures: This project develops advanced materials and structures technology to enable lightweight systems to reduce mission cost. Technology development activities focus on structural concepts and manufacturing processes for large composite structures and cryogenic propellant tanks for heavy lift launch vehicles, and on fabric materials and structural concepts for inflatable habitats.

    Advanced Exploration Systems Projects

    Advanced exploration systems incorporate new technologies to enable future capabilities for deep space exploration. Prototype systems are demonstrated in ground tests and flight experiments.

    Concept image of Space Exploration Vehicle

    Multi-Mission Space Exploration Vehicle: This project is developing a prototype crew excursion vehicle to enable exploration of Near Earth Asteroids and planetary surfaces.
    › About the Space Exploration Vehicle

    Habitat Demonstration Unit in the field

    Deep Space Habitat: This project is developing concepts and prototype subsystems for a habitat that will allow the crew to live and work safely in deep space.
    › About the Habitat Demonstration Unit Project

    Precision landing system

    Autonomous Precision Landing Systems: This project is developing optical sensors, and navigation and control algorithms to enable the capability for autonomous precision landing on the Moon or Mars. The autonomous precision landing system will be demonstrated in flight tests of a small lander.
    › About the Sensors Advance Lunar Landing Project
    › About Project Morpheus

    NASA diver in analog mission

    Analogs: This project is demonstrating prototype systems and operational concepts for exploration of Near Earth Asteroids and Mars in simulations, desert field tests, underwater environments, and ISS flight experiments.
    › About analog missions and field testing