Into The Proving Ground: Objectives For Human Exploration Near The Moon

Artist’s concept of an Orion spacecraft and its European-built service module near the moon. Image Credit: Lockheed Martin

Artist’s concept of an Orion spacecraft and its European-built service module near the moon. Image Credit: Lockheed Martin

November 30, 2016 – The early missions for NASA’s Deep Space Exploration Systems will set the cadence for many missions to follow. The Orion spacecraft, launched by the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, will travel more than 40,000 miles beyond the moon to an area that is only about three to five days away from Earth, yet farther than the Apollo astronauts traveled. With flight hardware in production for the first mission, NASA has established integrated human exploration objectives combining the efforts aboard the International Space Station, SLS and Orion, and other capabilities needed to support human missions on the Journey to Mars.

“The area of space near the moon offers a true deep space environment to gain experience for the Mars system and transit there, but with the ability to return to Earth in days rather than weeks or months if needed,” said William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for Human Exploration and Operations at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “This is the ideal proving ground for NASA and its partners to accomplish our exploration objectives.”

This volume of space extends from geostationary orbit around Earth to encompass the moon and orbits around it is known as cislunar space and is where we will be able to demonstrate, advance and validate the very capabilities we will need to send humans to Mars, added Gerstenmaier.

The journey to Mars crosses three thresholds, each with increasing challenges as humans move farther from Earth, starting with Earth reliant exploration aboard the space station in low-Earth orbit, through the proving ground of cislunar space, and culminating with Earth independent exploration where human missions to the Mars system are possible. The exploration objectives are grouped into three cross-cutting categories, transportation, working in space, and staying healthy, which will support human exploration in deep space throughout the three thresholds.

Work is already underway on an initial set of objectives in low-Earth orbit to mature many systems needed for deep space habitation and exploration. Proving ground missions will build on those accomplishments in two phases that will demonstrate our exploration systems and validate our exploration capabilities. These objectives will inform future flight test objectives and enable planners to begin building the detailed profiles and trajectories for the missions in the near-term through the end of the 2020s.

The period of exploration in the proving ground will begin with the first integrated launch of SLS and Orion, anticipated in 2018, and will extend through the 2020s. The first phase will focus on demonstrating the safe operation of the integrated SLS rocket and Orion spacecraft and other exploration operations to support short-duration objectives in cislunar space. NASA aims to begin a cadence of one flight per year after the second mission. This phase of proving ground missions will allow us to test technologies in their intended environment and apply innovative approaches to solving problems in preparation for longer duration missions in deep space.

Following the robotic portion of the Asteroid Redirect Mission that will retrieve an asteroid boulder and put it in an orbit near the moon, Orion will take crew to visit the boulder and collect samples in the mid-2020s. Completing the Asteroid Redirect Mission will mark the end of the first phase of deep space exploration in the proving ground and the agency will transition to the second phase that will allow NASA to validate its exploration capabilities.

The second phase will confirm that the agency’s capabilities can perform for long duration Mars class missions and will culminate at the end of the 2020s with a one year mission in cislunar space before venturing on crewed missions beyond the Earth-Moon system. This phase includes the validation of integrated SLS, Orion, habitation, crew, and in-space transportation systems to build confidence that human missions to Mars can be safely conducted with independence from Earth.

What we learn in the proving ground will pave the way for Earth independence by helping break our reliance on the logistics and supply chain, and reduce our dependence on ground control. This stage will enable explorers to identify and pioneer innovative solutions to technical and human challenges that could only have been discovered or engineered in deep space. The capabilities needed for operations in the Earth Independent period will depend on knowledge and experience that is expected to be gained in the previous two periods.

“These objectives are dynamic and NASA’s planning will continue to be informed by advances in technology and scientific knowledge, as well as by opportunities presented by growing commercial capabilities and international participation,” said Gerstenmaier. “Ultimately, the proving ground missions make possible our vision of humans living and working in deep space for years and returning safely home.”

Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Littleton, Colorado, is the prime contractor for the Orion spacecraft.