“We are farther down the path to sending humans to Mars than at any point in in NASA’s history,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden at an event at NASA Headquarters in Washington D.C. last Thursday.

Today, that path centers on two areas. Testing the long-term effects of space travel on astronauts. And developing a new space capsule called Orion.

NASA astronaut Scott Kelly and Roscosmos cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko are at the halfway point of a pioneering yearlong mission aboard the International Space Station. Kelly and Kornienko are working with scientists on Earth to test the psychological and physiological effects of long-term spaceflight. The science done here will pave the way for NASA’s ultimate goal – a manned mission to Mars.

Besides understanding the rigors of long-term space travel on the human body, NASA also needs a new spacecraft. That’s where the Orion capsule comes in. The latest news from Orion is positive. NASA officials completed an in-depth technical and programmatic review and confirmed ongoing support for the Orion program. This includes a NASA commitment to the program’s technical, cost and schedule baseline.

NASA Orion Capsule

The continued support for the Orion program marks a pivotal milestone. This is the furthest NASA has ever reached with a spacecraft designed to push the boundaries of what’s possible – taking humans into deep space.

“Our work to send humans out into the solar system is progressing,” said Bolden. “Orion is a key piece of the flexible architecture that will enable humanity to set foot on the Red Planet, and we are committed to building the spacecraft and other elements necessary to make this a reality.”

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Over the next few months, Orion’s engineers will finish a review of the spacecraft’s engineering design and technical progress of its systems and subsystems. The purpose of this review will be to show Orion is ready for full-scale fabrication, assembly, integration and testing.

The next big test for Orion comes in 2018. It will be first flight with Orion and NASA’s new Space Launch System (SLS) mega-rocket. The first manned flight of Orion will come no later than April 2023 according to NASA.

Check out this neat video of U.S. Navy divers retrieving the NASA Orion space capsule after it splashed down in the Pacific Ocean during its December 5, 2014 test.

NASA Looking For The Next BIG Idea

NASA is looking to the next generation of scientists for fresh ideas. NASA is looking for new ideas for generating lift using inflatable heat shields or hypersonic inflatable aerodynamic decelerator (HIAD) technology via its Breakthrough, Innovative and Game-changing (BIG) Idea Challenge.

“NASA is currently developing and flight testing HIADs — a new class of relatively lightweight deployable aeroshells that could safely deliver more than 22 tons to the surface of Mars,” said Steve Gaddis, GCD manager at NASA’s Langley Research Center. “A crewed spacecraft landing on Mars would weigh between 15 and 30 tons.”

Interested teams have until November 15 to submit papers describing their concepts. Check out this website for more info.

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