CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla – For the past 50 years, NASA has been responsible for achievements in space—and on Earth. In the past year alone, NASA succeeded in landing the most sophisticated rover on the surface of Mars, carried out the first-ever commercial mission to the International Space Station, and advanced the systems needed to send humans deeper into space.
“We are able to keep the United States the world leader in space exploration—and continue to implement America’s bipartisan space plan—because of our talented and dedicated work force,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden.
Fifty years ago, on a mid-December day, NASA’s Mariner 2 passed close by the planet Venus—the first time any spacecraft had ever studied another planet. Designed and built by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, located in Pasadena, Calif., the Mariner 2 spacecraft opened a new era of solar system exploration.
“JPL has always attempted to do mighty things on behalf of NASA and our nation,” said JPL director Charles Elachi. “Achieving America’s first ‘first in space’ is among the lab’s proudest achievements.”
After several attempts and close calls, Mariner 2 produced the first close-up measurements of Venus. It was also the first to confirm the existence of the solar wind, the stream of charged particles flowing outward from the sun.
Many missions followed in the years to come. In August 2012, the Curiosity rover touched down beside Mount Sharp on Mars—one of the most complex landings ever attempted in planetary exploration. It reported evidence of an ancient stream flow, mineral composition of Martian soil similar to that found in Hawaii containing volcanic glass, and the first assessment of the natural radiation environment.
Curiosity’s mission is to explore and assess a region on the surface of Mars to see if it was ever a suitable place for life to take hold. A new robotic science rover, based on the Curiosity design, is set to launch in 2020, with one of the goals being President Barack Obama’s challenge of sending humans to Mars orbit in the 2030s.
The final flight of the Space Shuttle Program took place in 2011, and the shuttles were delivered in 2012 to their new homes: Discovery is now at her new home at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum in Dulles, Va.; Enterprise went to the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum in New York; Endeavour is in the California Science Center in Los Angeles; and Atlantis can be found at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida.
NASA advanced commercial spaceflight this past year by contracting Space Exploration Technologies Corporation’s (SpaceX) Dragon spacecraft to resupply the International Space Station and return cargo back to Earth in October, becoming the first commercial company ever to do so.
Under NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services contract, SpaceX will fly at least 12 cargo missions to the space station by 2016.
SpaceX is one of two companies that built and tested new cargo spacecraft under NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program. Orbital Sciences is the other.
NASA announced in August new agreements with three American commercial companies to develop the next generation of U.S. human spaceflight, enabling a launch of astronauts for the next five years.
Advances are made by these companies under the Space Act Agreements through NASA’s Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap) initiative. The CCiCap partners are the Sierra Nevada Corporation, Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), and The Boeing Company.
NASA and its international partners celebrated 12 years of permanent human habitation on the International Space Station on Nov. 2. More than 1,500 research and technology development experiments have been conducted, many of which are producing advances in medicine and environmental systems.
NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida marked a major milestone in the construction of the spacecraft that will carry astronauts farther into space than ever before. The Orion capsule will sustain astronauts during space travel, as well as provide emergency abort capabilities and safe re-entry from deep space.
The Orion will launch on Exploration Flight Test-1, an uncrewed mission planned for 2014. It will travel 3,600 miles above the Earth’s surface—15 times farther than the International Space Station’s orbital position.
Seeing more of the universe hasn’t just been limited to the development of spacecraft. Using NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, astronomers announced Dec. 12 they have seen further than ever before and have uncovered a previously unseen population of seven primitive galaxies that formed more than 13 billion years ago.