July reminds us of the people and programs that set NASA on its Journey to Mars. In 1969, humans landed on the moon for the first time, showing that the nation could organize and implement a focused, long-term exploration program. Seven years later, the Viking spacecraft landed on Mars to search for signs of life. Though the experiments discovered some unexpected chemical activity in the Martian soil, there was no clear evidence of living organisms. Only five years ago, the space shuttle program ended after 30 years of research into how humans can live and work in space, knowledge that will be essential on the Journey to Mars.
On June 28, NASA test-fired the engine of the biggest booster ever built. The two-minute qualification test used more than 500 sensors to gather critical data on 82 test objectives. The booster is part of the Space Launch System, the most powerful rocket in the word, which will have an uncrewed test flight in 2018 with NASA’s Orion spacecraft.
On July 6, NASA astronaut Kate Rubins and Russian and Japanese crewmates launched to the International Space Station aboard a Soyuz spacecraft. During their four-month mission, they and the station’s other crew members will facilitate approximately 250 research investigations and technology demonstrations not possible on Earth, advancing scientific knowledge of Earth, space, physical, and biological sciences. Science conducted on the space station continues to yield benefits for humanity and will enable future long-duration human and robotic exploration into deep space.
U.S. companies and other nations routinely deliver critical research and other supplies to the space station. On July 20 SpaceX’s Dragon became the most recent spaceship to arrive, bringing with it an international docking adapter to accommodate the future arrival of U.S. commercial crew spacecraft. Orbital ATK’s Cygnus spacecraft will carry crew supplies and vehicle hardware, while a Russian spacecraft has already docked to the station with supplies.
The journey to Mars will take us places besides Mars. In September, NASA will launch OSIRIS-REx to Bennu, a near-Earth asteroid. After reaching Bennu in 2018, it will gather a sample from the asteroid and return it to Earth in 2023. OSIRIS-REx is a precursor mission to NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission, which will collect a large boulder from the surface of an asteroid and move it into a stable orbit around Earth for astronauts to study. The technology needed for the Asteroid Redirect Mission will ultimately be used to get to Mars.