A Look at NASA’s Deep Space Exploration Plans

Last month NASA officials gave a series of presentations about the space agency’s deep-space exploration plans to the NASA Advisory Council’s Human Exploration and Operations (HEO) Committee. I have excerpted slides from those presentations to provide an overview of what the space agency is planning.

NASA’s planning is divided into three phases, beginning with the testing of life support and other systems on the International Space Station and continuing with operations in cislunar space. The final stage involves the exploration of Mars.

NASA’s NextSTEP program has begun to lay the groundwork for deep-space exploration with a series of contracts examining concepts for habitats to be used in conjuction with the Orion spacecraft.

The habitat module would be part of a proposed Deep Space Gateway that would operate in cis-lunar space. NASA is talking to nations who are already partners in the International Space Station about these plans.

The government is providing a number of technologies for the prototype habitats the companies are building.

The space agency is also exploring propulsion and power options to support its deep-space exploration plans.

The PPE module would be the first element of the Deep Space Gateway. NASA has let five study contracts to industry.

NextSTEP is funding advanced electric thruster development.

The space agency hopes that public-private partnerships will significantly reduce the cost of these efforts.

The NextSTEP program includes several efforts to developed advanced environmental control and life support systems (ECLSS).

Advanced in-space manufacturing, which has already begun on the International Space Station (ISS), is also being pursued.

A series of spacecraft fire safety experiments known as Saffire has been conducted aboard Cygnus resupply ships after they left ISS.

The space agency is also exploring the use of in-situ resources to reduce the cost of shipping materials up from Earth.

One experiment known as MOXIE, which seeks to produce oxygen from the martian atmosphere, is scheduled to launch aboard NASA’s Mars 2020 rover.

NASA is also developing the Resource Prospector mission to conduct the first mining operations on another world. The rover will search for lunar volatiles and demonstration ISRU processing of lunar regolith.

Another aspect of NASA’s deep-space planning is Lunar CATALYST, a program under which it is working with three companies that want to deliver experiments and payloads to the lunar surface.

The Lunar CATALYST contracts have been extended by two years with expectations that the landers will be flying in 2018 to 2020.


The preceding is merely a sampling of presentations delivered last month. To learn more, you can download the complete PowerPoint presentations here.

  • Robert G. Oler

    none of this has a chance of happening

    SLS Orion prediction

    no flight in 2020, 2018 sees more movement right on schedule and cost

    none of this happens in the first term of Trump and there is a blue wave coming which stops it all

  • MzUnGu

    PowerPoint time!!! Here we go again…. I give it 4 years, 8 tops. LOL

  • ThomasLMatula

    Yes, the sure make a lot of pretty slides showing all the studies they are doing.

  • Mr Snarky Answer

    Microsoft Powerpoint sees your trying to develop a vaporware deep-space exportation program, would you like to use a template?

  • I realize going trying to plan Apollo when you’ve just had Alan Sheppard’s Mercury Flight is kind of impossible. At the same time, I’ve seen enough “collect all the efforts in work and call it The Plan” presentations to be bored by them. But, asking these kinds of questions leads to Gemini and other great things.

  • therealdmt

    I think the first question will be, does the Trump admin. buy the “The Deep Space Gateway we were building for Obama’s l‘The Journey to Mars’ now = your ‘Return to the Moon’” argument NASA will present them?

  • mlc449
  • Michael Halpern

    Space program Laughing Stock alone makes this plan more than ridiculous.

  • Robert G. Oler

    Need another study administration

  • Michael Halpern

    CATALYST is actually a semi COTS lunar lander program, the real wrench in the works is SLS, everything else or some modification thereof is feasible provided a different Launch vehicle, heck if you have to have a substantial payload penalty to get to or near TLI with a full first stage recovery Falcon Heavy, for cargo, do it it’s more viable than SLS, of course the RLV that will be out in the next 5 years that really is good for BEO (and GEO) is New Glenn, though it will never compete for LEO and MEO and FH in fully expendable configuration is a really substitute for SLS.

  • MzUnGu

    Sad thing is, still a notch above Obama’s Space Rock plan. (B4 this go patisan, voted for neither)

  • Is that salt, or cocaine?

  • Michael Halpern

    Obama’s plan was to invest more heavily into commercial, anything with SLS is because of what Congress stuck him with

  • SamuelRoman13

    More like local Space. The furtherest away galaxy imaged is about 12 billion LY. Now that is deep Space. I guess they think there will never be any star-ships and the Solar system is deep space.

  • Vladislaw

    Then congress should have passed his ORIGINAL budget proposal for NASA which called for 6 billion in new funding to fully fund commercial crew and which would be flying now.. New Engines for the atlas V to replace the russian enigines, which would be flying now. A fuel depot in LEO which would already be being tested. And a boat load of tech .. all killed by republicans… Well not all republicans.

    The two space advisers to trump, Walker and Gingrich, had this to say about Obama’s original NASA budget proposal…

    “GINGRICH & WALKER: Obama’s brave reboot for NASA”

    “Despite the shrieks you might have heard from a few special interests, the Obama administration’s budget for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration deserves strong approval from Republicans. The 2011 spending plan for the space agency does what is obvious to anyone who cares about man’s future in space and what presidential commissions have been recommending for nearly a decade.

    The Commission on the Future of the United States Aerospace Industry in 2002 suggested that greater commercial activity in space was the proper way forward. The Aldridge Commission of 2004, headed by former Secretary of the Air Force Edward C. “Pete” Aldridge, made clear that the only way NASA could achieve success with President George W. Bush’s Vision for Space Exploration was to expand the space enterprise with greater use of commercial assets. Most recently, the Augustine Commission, headed by Norman R. Augustine, former chief executive of Lockheed Martin, made clear that commercial providers of space-launch services were a necessary part of maintaining space leadership for the United States.

    NASA consistently ignored or rejected the advice provided to it by outside experts. The internal culture within the agency was actively hostile to commercial enterprise. A belief had grown from the days when the Apollo program landed humans on the moon that only NASA could do space well and therefore only NASA projects and programs were worthy. To his credit, former NASA Administrator Michael Griffin adopted a program to begin to access commercial companies for hauling cargo to the International Space Station. That program existed alongside the much larger effort to build a new generation of space vehicles designed to take us back to the moon. It has been under constant financial pressure because of the cost overruns in the moon mission, called Constellation.”


  • Michael Halpern

    People want to hate on Obama’s treatment of NASA because all they see is that Shuttle ended on his watch and he canceled Constellation, Shuttle was going to end regardless, it was a victim of compromises, they might have been able to push it a couple more years, but it just didn’t make sense at the time especially with the financial situation, Constellation was ended because it was the old way of doing things that only a proxy-war could really sustain, no proxy war, no one will want to fund it, and it was suffocating a far more viable way forward for the future, one that created jobs rather than simply maintaining existing jobs, renewed a major American export and reduced the strategic reliance on an import from a country that isn’t exactly a strong ally and our relationships with said country’s current government have always been tenuous at best.

    That last bit is a part that a lot of people don’t get. Getting crew to the ISS on our own vehicles is a matter of pride and partially cost, removing our dependence on Russian built engines is a security concern, more and more space access is becoming a strategic resource, if that access is tied to a foreign power whom we aren’t strong allies with, they can cripple that strategic resource, multiple times relatively recently this has happened in the form of Oil Embargoes from the Middle East. The reliance on the RD-180s and other Russian engines started in the first place for 2 reasons primarily, historic quality of Russian rocket engines, and not wanting those engines to be sold to countries that may have been politically unstable or we were even less friendly with. The situation however is drastically different, Russian space production infrastructure is becoming dubious, the industrial resources to build rocket engines are more common, and the economic opportunity lost by importing now expensive engines has become apparent, in the 90s and 2000s we went from a major world launch provider to practically no commercial launches, Business As Usual was extremely detrimental, so it had to change

  • Vladislaw

    Blaming President Obama for the shuttle is like trying to blame Nixon for shutting down Apollo. The decision had already been made by President Bush. Once He said the shuttle was retiring all the parts needed to fly the remaining missions were built and the dies and jigs were destroyed and the companies changed the parts lines to building other things. By the time Obama took office the shuttle was dead. Wayne Hale wrote a piece explaining this and how it could not have been resurrected unless billions were spent by a congress that refused to spend it.

    They also try and blame him for Constellation…. another dumb proposition.

  • Michael Halpern

    Constellation was a blatant violation of NASA’s charter on the excuse that commercial vehicles weren’t worth human rating. And it had funding problems, it had to be cancelled to get solutions to the commercial crewed spaceflight safety to happen

  • Michael Halpern

    Obama’s primary plan of commercialization of space is an historically bipartisan presidential goal, the only reason its partisan at all is the traditionally republican held states that benefit from the traditional model from the Apollo era. NASA’s charter is written such that they were always supposed to utilize and promote commercial players, and only develop capabilities that can not be provided commercially, in many respects Asteroid Redirect satisfied that requirement, and with one glaring exception, NASA is historically pretty good about leveraging commercial assets when possible, the exception is HSF which is the majority of NASA’s budget

  • MzUnGu

    Well, Asteroid Redirect is a pipe dream. The ground work for such mission needed a bunch of probes and observation crafts to visit and ID NEO/space rocks. Did NASA/Obama launch anything to them rocks in those 8 yrs?

  • Michael Halpern

    OSIRIS REx among others, so yes, but it was still something that COULDN’T be achieved by commercial and hadn’t been done before pushing the boundaries of space exploration and science, that is NASA’s mission not to spend money on building things commercial enterprise can offer