Mars is a rich destination for scientific discovery and robotic and human exploration as we expand our presence into the solar system.
Its formation and evolution are comparable to Earth, helping scientists to learn more about planet Earth’s history and future.
Mars had conditions suitable for life in its past. Future exploration could uncover evidence of life, answering one of the fundamental mysteries of the cosmos: Does life exist beyond Earth?
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.
Astronauts on the orbiting laboratory are helping to prove many of the technologies and communications systems needed for human missions to deep space, including Mars.
The space station also advances man’s understanding of how the body changes in space and how to protect astronaut health.
The next step is deep space, where NASA will send a robotic mission to capture and redirect an asteroid to orbit the moon. Astronauts aboard the Orion spacecraft will explore the 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 is needed to send cargo as part of human missions to Mars.
Beginning in 2018, NASA’s powerful Space Launch System 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.
For the first time in almost 40 years, a NASA human-rated rocket has completed all steps needed to clear a critical design review (CDR).
The agency’s Space launch system (SLS) is the first vehicle designed to meet the challenges of the journey to Mars and the first exploration class rocket since the Saturn V.
SLS will be the most powerful rocket ever built and, with the agency’s Orion spacecraft, will launch America into a new era of exploration to destinations beyond Earth’s orbit.
The CDR provided a final look at the design and development of the integrated launch vehicle before full-scale fabrication begins.
“We’ve nailed down the design of SLS, we’ve successfully completed the first round of testing of the rocket’s engines and boosters, and all the major components for the first flight are now in production,” said Bill Hill, deputy associate administrator of NASA’s Exploration Systems Development Division.
“There have been challenges, and there will be more ahead, but this review gives us confidence that we are on the right track for the first flight of SLS and using it to extend permanent human presence into deep space.”
The CDR examined the first of three configurations planned for the rocket, referred to as SLS Block 1. The Block I configuration will have a minimum 70 metric tonne lift capability and be powered by twin boosters and four RS-25 engines.
The next planned upgrade of SLS, Block 1B, would use a more powerful exploration upper stage for more ambitious missions with a 105 metric tonne lift capacity.
Block 2 will add a pair of advanced solid or liquid propellant boosters to provide a 130 metric tonne lift capacity. In each configuration, SLS will continue to use the same core stage and four RS-25 engines.
The SLS programme completed the review in July, in conjunction with a separate review by the Standing Review Board, which is composed of seasoned experts from NASA and industry who are independent of the programme.
Throughout the course of eleven weeks, 13 teams – made up of senior engineers and aerospace experts across the agency and industry – reviewed more than 1000 SLS documents and more than 150 GB of data as part of the comprehensive assessment process at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Centre in Huntsville, Alabama, where SLS is managed for the agency.
The final review – the flight readiness review – will take place just prior to the 2018 flight readiness date.
Flight hardware currently is in production for every element.
NASA is preparing for a second qualification test for the SLS boosters, and structural test articles for the core and upper stages of the rocket are either completed or currently in production.
NASA also recently completed the first developmental test series on the RS-25 engines.