This month, I focus on NASA’s stepping stone program that will eventually lead us to deep space exploration. Sending humans further into space for long durations will take astronomical spacecraft and internal environment-control innovation to propel humankind to new discoveries and deep space exploration.
SpaceX launched their third commercial resupply cargo mission on April 18th, 2014. The Falcon 9 rocket propelled the Dragon capsule into space where it rendezvoused with the International Space Station (ISS). On board the Dragon capsule is a brand new experiment, Veg-01. While it sounds like an introductory class on vegetables, it is actually a NASA foray into growing larger edible plants aboard the ISS. The plant growth chamber will be home to “Outredgeous” lettuce whose root structure resides in pillows installed on a root mat that will be watered and illuminated by LED lights.
The Vegetable Production System (VEGGIE) will provide fresh food to the ISS crew where they will be able to grow larger plants with its expandable design and it collapses for storage and transportation. While the fresh lettuce will provide much appreciated nutrition the crew, VEGGIE will also collect data on the plants’ health and how they respond to microgravity and the environment in the ISS. With future plans of long duration space travel, first to a meteor and then to Mars, the ability to grow fresh food on these missions will become increasingly important.
Orion was put through its paces early in April during a test series where the spacecraft ran for 26 hours straight. The spacecraft was able to communicate with its computer system, temperature controls and other on-board instruments. The successful testing of the avionics systems is a major step toward deep space exploration and moves the Orion closer to launch. Next up is a vibration test of the crew module, followed by the installation of the heat shield, and then the coupling of the crew module to the service module.
All of this is leading up to the Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1) of Orion, which will be unmanned and travel 3,600 miles from Earth, and then reenter our atmosphere at 20,000 mph.
The EFT-1 of Orion will be launched into orbit using Delta IV rockets. NASA is hard at work on the Space Launch System (SLS), a new rocket system to propel larger spacecraft further into space. Instead of the three boosters on the Delta IV, the SLS has two of the world’s largest boosters at 154 feet long and 12 feet in diameter. Affixed with four modified RS-25 engines with increased thrust and power, the SLS will be the most powerful of its kind.