A Groundbreaking Journey

NASA is on a Journey to Mars, and there is a new consensus emerging around our plan, strategy, and timetable for sending Americans to the Red Planet in the 2030s. To those of us working on this plan, there is a tangible sense that fewer stakeholders are asking questions like “why aren’t you doing this my way” or “is this Mars the right destination?” Instead, more and more are asking “how can we be a part of this” and “what are some areas where we can work together?”

At the same time, there have been some misleading reports circulating about two of the most important foundations for this journey: the Space Launch System rocket and the Orion capsule. To put it in the clearest language possible: SLS and Orion are on pace to attain the lofty ambitions NASA has for them. Specifically, to advance our Journey to Mars and be ready for a launch of the uncrewed Exploration Mission-1 in 2018 and the crewed Exploration Mission-2 in 2021 — missions that will allow us to flight test and demonstrate key components of a crewed mission to Mars (capabilities, reliability, safety, etc.).

Down the road, as we prepare to land on Mars with a crew, it will be essential to transport both crew and the major components needed to establish a deep space presence — a habitat, lander, ascent vehicle, and so forth.

Therefore, our work today on SLS and Orion is very important. The SLS is powerful and flexible. Its expansive size gives it unprecedented payload capacity and lift capacity. Meanwhile, Orion is designed to endure the rigors of operation in deep space, and to safely return astronauts through the Earth’s atmosphere from farther in space than humans have ever before traveled.

During recent visits to our field centers, I have witnessed the visible and tangible progress being made on the SLS and Orion; hardware being built, tests, flights, and other milestones. In the coming year they are on pace to reach even more milestones.

In short, we are moving forward on our Journey to Mars and you can learn more about our plan on NASA.gov.

It is organized into three stages. The first, our current phase, is an Earth Reliant stage where we’re researching and testing technologies on the International Space Station. Meanwhile, we’re sending supplies (and soon crew) to the station from American soil via commercial partners.

The second is a Proving Ground phase, beginning with the 2018 mission. We’ll test things like solar electric propulsion and habitats in cis-lunar space — the area around the moon — over 100,000 miles away, but still just a few days away from Earth. SLS and Orion will be critical to getting us there.

When we reach the third, Mars-ready (or Earth-independent) stage in the 2030s it will be thanks to the work we’re doing today on SLS, Orion and other technologies that drive both exploration and economic growth here on Earth.

Our journey is a tapestry woven from the fabric of our nation’s best talent working on SLS, Orion, commercial crew and cargo, our international partners, and even that next generation of explorers who will reach Mars in the 2030s. It takes all of us to get there and, while there will be many challenges along the way, the progress being made all over our country and the excitement in the workforce is breathtaking and inspiring.

To me, American leadership on this journey is symbolic of what great nations do and I couldn’t be more proud of all our teams working so hard every day to turn this dream of exploration and discovery into reality.

Lightfoot is NASA’s associate administrator, the U.S. space agency’s top civil servant.