NASA 2013 Highlights: Commercial Progress and Human Exploration Plans

Photo taken by the Expedition 34 crew aboard the International Space Station during the March 3, 2013 approach, capture and docking of the SpaceX Dragon. (Credit: NASA)
Photo taken by the Expedition 34 crew aboard the International Space Station during the March 3, 2013 approach, capture and docking of the SpaceX Dragon. (Credit: NASA)

NASA Looks Back at 2013

Commercial Space Progress

A little more than two years after the end of the Space Shuttle Program, NASA has returned the International Space Station resupply missions to the United States in a powerful partnership with U.S. companies SpaceX and Orbital Sciences, who are investing here and creating good-paying jobs for American workers.

This medium close-up view, photographed by one of the Expedition 37 crew members, shows the first Cygnus commercial cargo spacecraft built by Orbital Sciences Corp. attached to the end of the robotic arm (Canadarm2) on the International Space Station. (Credit: NASA)
This medium close-up view, photographed by one of the Expedition 37 crew members, shows the first Cygnus commercial cargo spacecraft built by Orbital Sciences Corp. attached to the end of the robotic arm (Canadarm2) on the International Space Station. (Credit: NASA)

NASA remains committed to launching American astronauts from U.S. soil within the next four years. Recent progress includes key milestones in commercial crew development met by three American companies: Boeing, SpaceX and Sierra Nevada Corporation; a Nov. 19 request for proposals on the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability contract (CCtCap), designed to ensure commercial companies meet NASA’s safety requirements for transporting NASA and international partner crews to the International Space Station; unfunded Space Act Agreements with other potential commercial providers; and creation of a Space Technology Program focused on breakthrough innovations that will change future transportation options. These accomplishments have been bolstered by the extension of International Space Station operations to 2020, enabling expanded commercial and research opportunities.

Enabling Deep Space Exploration

The International Space Station, backdropped by the blackness of space and the thin line of Earth's atmosphere. (Credit: NASA)
The International Space Station, backdropped by the blackness of space and the thin line of Earth’s atmosphere. (Credit: NASA)

The primary destination of these commercial launches, the International Space Station, celebrated 15 years in orbit in November, and crew members have lived and worked aboard the station non-stop since October 2000.

Members of NASA's newest astronaut class pose with an Orion capsule at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston on Tuesday, Aug. 20, 2013. (Credit: NASA)
Members of NASA’s newest astronaut class pose with an Orion capsule at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston on Tuesday, Aug. 20, 2013. (Credit: NASA)

Interest in human spaceflight remains extremely high, and in 2003 NASA welcomed new astronaut candidates from a near-record applicant pool of more than 6,000. Half of the class is women, which is the highest percentage in any class to date. These astronaut candidates are the explorers who will first fly on commercial rockets to low-Earth orbit and help us execute missions to an asteroid and Mars.

At NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the Orion ground test vehicle has been lifted high in the air by crane in the transfer aisle of the Vehicle Assembly Building. (Credit: NASA/Dimitri Gerondidakis)
At NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the Orion ground test vehicle has been lifted high in the air by crane in the transfer aisle of the Vehicle Assembly Building. (Credit: NASA/Dimitri Gerondidakis)

2013 was a year of progress toward new capabilities as the agency’s new Space Launch System (SLS) heavy lift rocket completed its preliminary design review and the Orion multipurpose crew vehicle reached many milestones on its path to undertake its first flight test in 2014. The heat shield that will protect Orion on that mission’s re-entry next year was delivered to the Kennedy Space Center for installation; NASA reached an agreement with the European Space Agency (ESA) to partner on the spacecraft’s service module; and Orion itself underwent loads testing, a water recovery test, and full power-up.

Four RS-25 engines, like the one pictured undergoing a hot-fire test, will power the core stage of NASA's Space Launch System (SLS) -- NASA's new heavy-lift launch vehicle. (Credit: NASA)
Four RS-25 engines, like the one pictured undergoing a hot-fire test, will power the core stage of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) — NASA’s new heavy-lift launch vehicle. (Credit: NASA)

NASA and 12 of its international partners released a Global Exploration Roadmap, sending a clear signal that the global community is committed to a unified strategy of deep space exploration, with robotic and human missions to destinations that include near-Earth asteroids, the moon and Mars.

Asteroid Mission

This concept image shows an astronaut retrieving a sample from a captured asteroid. (Credit:  NASA)
This concept image shows an astronaut retrieving a sample from a captured asteroid. (Credit:
NASA)

The public imagination has been captured by the mission NASA announced in April to redirect an asteroid into a stable retrograde orbit in the vicinity of the moon using cutting-edge space technology, such as solar electric propulsion. This will allow astronauts to visit the asteroid, study its characteristics and bring samples home. In November, NASA held a workshop to discuss about 100 of the best ideas the agency has received from around the world about both identifying asteroids and figuring out what to do about those that are a threat, as well as how to best carry out the asteroid redirect mission. The mission formulation review has been completed, and NASA will move into mission baseline discussions in 2014.

The Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) spacecraft, having completed its original mission, was reactivated this year to hunt for asteroids. OSIRIS-REx, NASA’s robotic mission to return samples from an asteroid, moved from formulation to the development phase in 2013.

NASA also announced an Asteroid Grand Challenge to find and characterize asteroid threats and gather ideas for capturing and redirecting an asteroid for human exploration. The public is incredibly interested in asteroids, and the agency expects strong participation in this initiative.