NASA’s Mars milestone

Everywhere you look, there is renewed interest in space. Two of the top grossing movies of the past two years were «Gravity» and «Interstellar,» while recent real-life space dramas have been even more fascinating than fiction.

Take the unprecedented 37-year, 12-billion-mile odyssey of NASA’s Voyager spacecraft — the first human-made object to venture into interstellar space. In 2012, our Curiosity rover made its harrowing landing on Mars. We also provided key support and instruments to the European Space Agency’s Rosetta spacecraft and the recent first-ever robotic landing on a comet with its Philae lander.

Everywhere I go, the world over, students, citizens, scientists, explorers and entrepreneurs are eager to get in on the action in this new era of space exploration. And we are just a few days from yet another extraordinary milestone toward a human journey to Mars.

On Thursday, NASA’s Orion spacecraft will blast off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on its first test flight — a major step in meeting President Barack Obama’s bold challenge, supported by Congress, that America send humans to Mars by the 2030s.

As the administrator of NASA, I am excited by the opportunity to launch this historic journey. As a former astronaut, I am proud and a bit envious of the amazing men and women — members of our elite astronaut corps — who are now in training to perhaps be the first people to set foot on the surface of another planet.

Our uncrewed test flight will send Orion 3,600 miles above Earth, farther into space than any craft designed for astronauts has gone since the last Apollo moon mission more than 40 years ago.

The mission has two primary goals. First, as we have seen with two recent launch failures, space travel is a dangerous business, which is why this test flight will stress systems critical to ensuring the safety of future astronauts. These include the heat shield, parachutes, avionics and attitude control. We intend to learn as much as possible before Orion carries astronauts to explore an asteroid and then on a journey to Mars.

Our second major goal is to expose the spacecraft to the orbital environment it will endure on missions into deep space. We will measure Orion’s performance from launch through its four-hour flight, splashdown and recovery in the Pacific Ocean.

NASA is leveraging expertise and resources from across the agency to achieve this next giant leap in space exploration. For example, Curiosity measured radiation on the way to Mars and is now sending back radiation data from the Martian surface. In September, NASA’s MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution Mission) became the first orbiter to study the Martian upper atmosphere, MAVEN will greatly improve our understanding of how Mars has changed over time and the potential for habitability. Our deep-space exploration program is also driving development of technologies such as solar electric propulsion, which will power tomorrow’s missions.

NASA is also changing the way we do business, beginning with our commitment to help build an American commercial space industry that is second to none. As President Obama has said, the greatest nation on earth should not be dependent on other nations to get into space. That is why we are now forming partnerships with American aerospace companies to ferry cargo, and soon humans, to and from the International Space Station. These commercial partnerships are proving that America works best when government and private-sector ingenuity work as a team. Our commercial partners are not only allowing NASA to focus on our big goal of a human mission to Mars, they are also creating good jobs and strengthening our economy.

The world has learned much about the Red Planet after decades of exploration with rovers and orbiters, but the time has come for human exploration, and we intend to meet the challenge. The Orion test flight is the first step. It is important to remember that NASA sent humans to the moon by setting a goal that seemed beyond our reach. With our Journey to Mars program, NASA is once again well on its way to breathing new life into an American dream and turning science fiction into science fact.

Godspeed, Orion!

Charles Bolden is administrator of NASA. He flew on four space shuttle missions, two as commander. The views expressed are his own.

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