U.S. Space Program Readies for Next Steps on 50th Anniversary of First American Spacewalk

A geologist hikes up a hill near the Mars Desert Research Station in Hanksville, Utah, April 19, 2015.

Fifty years ago, U.S. Air Force Maj. Ed White stepped out of his Gemini IV spacecraft and became the first American astronaut to walk in space. This feat was a turning point, marking the moment that the United States seized the mantle of leadership in human spaceflight from the Soviet Union. Since then, the United States has been at the leading edge of human spaceflight, from landing astronauts on the moon, to the deployment and repair of the Hubble Space Telescope, to the construction of the International Space Station.

Today, America’s space program stands at an equally important crossroads. The retirement of the space shuttle in 2011 left the United States without the ability to send astronauts into orbit for the first time since the early 1980s, leading some to wonder whether America was abandoning its leadership in space. Indeed, for the past four years, the United States has relied on Russian Soyuz spacecraft to take astronauts to and from the International Space Station.

The end of the shuttle program reopened two basic but critical questions about the U.S. human spaceflight program: What should America’s space ambitions be? And what would it take to achieve them? These two questions get at both the overarching rationale for human spaceflight and the technical challenges inherent in that enterprise. The Center for American Progress aims to explore them in an event on the 50th anniversary of Maj. White’s spacewalk.

The future of the American human spaceflight program looks much brighter today than it did when Atlantis touched down at the end of the final shuttle flight in July 2011. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or NASA, has taken concrete steps to both return astronaut launches to the United States and build the capabilities necessary to send humans farther than they have gone before—including a journey to Mars some time in the 2030s. The spacecraft intended to make that trip—the Orion Multipurpose Crew Vehicle—conducted its first, unmanned test flight at the end of 2014. Astronaut Scott Kelly and cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko are spending a year aboard the International Space Station to gain a better understanding of the long-term effects of microgravity on the human body—knowledge that will be critical to an eventual Mars mission.

Plans for the U.S. human spaceflight program over the coming decades are more ambitious than anything since the Apollo program. By 2017, astronauts will once again launch to the International Space Station from the United States, but now, they will be hitching rides from private companies. NASA already has given multibillion dollar contracts to deliver astronauts to the station, recently ordering its first mission to the station from a private company. As for the International Space Station itself, the United States has committed to operating humanity’s orbiting laboratory until at least 2024, giving America at least four more years to incubate the world’s first private human spaceflight industry.

Meanwhile, NASA is methodically developing the capabilities necessary to send humans to Mars by the 2030s and has an ambitious set of goals to meet in order to get there. By November 2018, Orion will conduct its second unmanned test flight, this time sent to lunar orbit by the first launch of the new Space Launch System, a rocket more powerful than the Saturn V, which sent astronauts to the moon. The first astronauts will fly on Orion in 2021, traveling farther into space than anyone since the last moon landing in 1972.

The 2021 Orion flight will be preparation for the Asteroid Redirect Mission, which is scheduled for some time around 2025. In December 2020, NASA will launch a robot to a not yet determined near-Earth asteroid to collect a boulder from its surface and bring it into orbit. Astronauts aboard Orion will then intercept the boulder and collect samples from its surface.

All of these missions and capabilities are projected to culminate in a human journey to Mars—or at least a Martian orbit—some time in the 2030s. A number of substantial challenges remain to be overcome, such as protecting crew members from hazardous radiation during their long trip to the red planet. But if all goes according to plan, the United States will have many of the key building blocks necessary to send humans to Mars by the 2030s.

Peter Juul is a Policy Analyst on the National Security and International Policy team at the Center for American Progress.