Making Human Settlement of Space a Reality

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden

By John Holdren and Charles Bolden

Today, President Obama outlined a vision to CNN for the future of space exploration.  Echoing what he said in the 2015 State of the Union address, the President wrote, “We have set a clear goal vital to the next chapter of America’s story in space: sending humans to Mars by the 2030s and returning them safely to Earth, with the ultimate ambition to one day remain there for an extended time.”  Later this week, many of the Nation’s top innovators will come together in Pittsburgh at the White House Frontiers Conference, where they will further explore, among other things, how American investments in science and technology will help us settle “the final frontier” – space.   But today, we’re excited to announce two new NASA initiatives that build on the President’s vision and utilize public-private partnerships to enable humans to live and work in space in a sustainable way.

In April 2010, the President challenged the country – and NASA – to send American astronauts on a Journey to Mars in the 2030s.  By reaching out further into the solar system and expanding the frontiers of exploration, the President outlined a vision for pushing the bounds of human discovery, while also revitalizing the space industry and creating jobs here at home.

To achieve these mutually-reinforcing goals, the President instructed NASA to develop spacecraft and technologies geared toward sending astronauts to deep space, while at the same time partnering with American companies to build a strong space economy.  Following the President’s vision, NASA has worked over the past 6 years to help catalyze a vibrant new sector of the economy by enabling the commercial transportation of cargo and soon crew from American soil to the International Space Station.  And today, Americans are working at more than a thousand companies across virtually every state to support commercial space initiatives and with them, the growth of a new commercial market in Low Earth Orbit.

On the International Space Station, we’re working “off-the-Earth, for-the-Earth,” leading a broad international coalition of countries and companies in conducting research and demonstrating technologies that hold great promise for everything ranging from sending human beings to Mars to improving eye surgery to purifying drinking water and making communities more resilient when natural disasters strike.

This work aboard the space station is the heart and soul of the first stage of NASA’s Journey to Mars; a stage we call “Earth Dependent.”  It is focused on developing technologies and capabilities in earth orbit, where it is still fairly easy for us to directly support humans.   But over the next decade, we’ll enter the “Proving Ground” stage, where NASA, leading the way with the international community, will demonstrate and test technologies for the first time in cis-lunar space, the area around the moon, where our astronauts are days or weeks away from Earth, rather than hours.  For example, in the mid-2020s, NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission will send a robotic spacecraft to a nearby asteroid to test out important exploration technologies such as solar-electric propulsion, conduct scientific and planetary defense experiments, and then return a boulder from the asteroid to an orbit around the Moon for astronauts to study.  As the title of this stage indicates, this work serves as necessary preparation for eventual missions that will take humanity even further, to Mars and beyond.

And that brings us to the first thing we’re excited to discuss today.  NASA has already begun laying the groundwork for these deep space missions. In 2014 we issued a “broad agency announcement” or “BAA” asking private partners for concept studies and development projects in advanced propulsion, small satellites, and habitation as part of the newly created Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships or “NextSTEP” program.  Six companies received awards to start developing habitation systems in response to that “NextSTEP” BAA.  The idea is that these habitats or “habs” would evolve into spacecraft capable of sustaining and transporting astronauts on long duration deep space missions, like a mission to Mars.  And their development would be achieved through new public-private partnerships designed to build on and support the progress of the growing commercial space sector in Earth orbit.  The work done by those companies was so promising that earlier this year, we extended the NextSTEP hab program into Phase 2 and opened it up to new entrants. In August, six companies were selected to produce ground prototypes for deep space habitat modules.

NASA Selects Six Companies to Develop Prototypes, Concepts for Deep Space Habitats

At the same time that we’re working to extend our reach into deep space, we’re also continuing to innovate closer to Earth, by expanding our partnerships with commercial space companies.  And that’s the second initiative we are focused on today.  Recently, NASA asked the private sector how it might use an available docking port on the ISS.   One of the potential uses of such a port would be preparation for one or more future commercial stations in Low Earth Orbit, ready to take over for the Space Station once its mission ends in the 2020s.  The private sector responded enthusiastically, and those responses indicated a strong desire by U.S. companies to attach a commercial module to the ISS that could meet the needs of NASA as well as those of private entrepreneurs.

As a result of the responses, this fall, NASA will start the process of providing companies with a potential opportunity to add their own modules and other capabilities to the International Space Station.  While NASA prepares for the transition from the Space Station to its successors, the agency is also working to support and grow the community of scientists and entrepreneurs conducting research and growing businesses in space. A vibrant user community will be key to ensuring the economic viability of future space stations.

For humanity to successfully and sustainably settle the “final frontier”, we will need to take advantage of investment and innovation in both the public and private sectors.  Neither will handle this immense challenge on its own.  The NextSTEP and ISS initiatives are excellent examples of how the two sectors can work together to extend humanity’s reach into space.  Make no mistake, the Journey to Mars will be challenging, but it is underway and with each one of these steps, we are pushing the boundaries of exploration and imagination for the Nation.

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  • newpapyrus

    Anything that keeps the $3 billion a year plus (US tax payer commitment) ISS program going is a waste of tax payers dollars. Private space stations are the future, not big government space stations. That $3 billion a year should be utilized by NASA for its beyond LEO architecture.

    Marcel

  • therealdmt

    Good job, NASA! I’m glad to see them taking the lead on transitioning to private LEO space stations and even preparing for a lunar orbiting station.

    Exciting times

  • JamesG

    Its just election year, lame-duck Administration gibberish, wishful thinking, and self-congratulations. Nothing proposed will survive into the new year.

  • Emmet Ford

    By touting their roadmap, NASA are marginally improving the likelihood of continuity through the next administration.

    And opening up ISS to be a testbed for habitats gives ISS another reason for being, which it really needs. Its primary reason for being has always been as a place to send astronauts. The “National Lab” bit is a forced contrivance, a fig leaf for our superhero jobs program, which we dutifully ignore to the best of our ability.

    Studying how sick astronauts can get in zero gravity has never struck me as a particularly useful undertaking, but it is the other reason given. National Lab. Human factors in microgravity, year 15. Two crap reasons, I think. We only accept them because doing so allows it to go unsaid that the real reason for ISS is to have a place to send astronauts.

    So any additional ISS raison d’etre is welcome. And this is a good one. We will need habitats anywhere we go and indeed while we are going there. Testing habitats on the space station seems like a great idea. Thanks for suggesting it, Robert Bigelow.

    We need a billionaire to get behind an artificial gravity program.

  • Carlton Stephenson

    We need a billionaire to get behind an artificial gravity program.

    Just thought that needed to be repeated.

  • therealdmt

    I’m mainly just offering a positive counterpoint to newpapyrus’s negativity below.

    Also, I think it likely that there will be a deep space hab in orbit around the moon, as congress has already instructed NASA to develop such. Further, I believe there is major momentum to add a commercial module to the ISS (see BEAM). So, I actually do expect both of these initiatives to actually come to some form of realization. Eventually.

    Of course, the future is always hazy and in motion. We’ll see…

  • ThomasLMatula

    This late in an Administration it’s only purpose is to make President Obama look like a visionary to historians – If Only…

    When the next President’s Administration starts they will do what every President has done since the 1980’s. They will create a blue ribbon presidential commission to develop a vision for space consisting of the usual Washington insiders and a few token outsiders that are seen as space celebrities for the moment. They will spend a year or two spending taxpayer money on hearings, travel and fact finding while NASA is on hold waiting on the reset button being hit. The President Commission will then product a report, the President will get a photo opt to look like a visionary like President Kennedy as he announces it. Then NASA will go running off in a new direction as the reset button is set.

  • I’ll agree with everyone you said except the last full sentence. I think it’s most likely that Clinton will kill ARM, keep the Lunar Outpost as the next step (which they will rebrand as their project) and just keep on going. It may not be starry-eyed, but it’s keeps everything MOVING, and arguably, in the right direction.

  • JamesG

    There is no money for Lunar Missions even if Clinton taxes the rich into the poor house. Clinton has even less of an emphasis on space than Obama did. Most likely her administration would simply carry on with the MSF projects NASA currently has running (SLS/ARM and ISS maint.) , since the political calculus really wouldn’t change. And that is the best case scenario between her and Trump.