NASA has set its sights on Mars, and the space agency’s top officials say they’ll be going through Hancock County, Mississippi, to get there.
""We're going to go to Mars. It won't be next week, it won't be next year. But we're putting the capabilities in place to take folks to Mars, and we're pretty excited about it," NASA Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot explains the agency’s strategy for sending humans deeper into space than ever before during a visit Friday to Stennis Space Center.
He lays out the phases, from the current “Earth-reliant” missions to the International Space Station, then to "proving ground” trips a bit further out, all with a path towards the longer trips to Mars.
"The current is the Earth-reliant," he says. "By the 2025 time frame, we want to be actively in the 'proving ground' area, testing our technologies, whether it's going to the asteroid or proving out some of the technologies that we need. And hopefully by the mid-2030s, we're doing the Mars-ready and we're heading that way with humans."
Stennis is gearing up to test the engines for the Space Launch System that’ll make all this happen. NASA Administrator Charles Bolden says Hancock County's Stennis is central to NASA's future.
"Everything that goes to space goes through Stennis," he says. "Because every single American rocket that we fly - that we, NASA, fly, and now more and more even our contractors - gets tested here on one of their test stands. It has always been vital for space flight, and I think it will remain that way."
The B-2 test stand, where the core stage of the Space Launch System will be tested, is the same one that tested the Saturn V over 40 years ago.
It’s now being refurbished for these new rockets - which will be the largest ever tested at Stennis, says the center's director Rick Gilbrech.
"We're probably about 40 percent done with the work," he says. "We're scheduled to have the stage here in September 2016, where we'll plug it in the stand. We'll do a cryogenic tanking test, and then in November 2016 we plan to light up all four of those rockets and start lighting up the countryside around here."
If all goes according to plan, the Space Launch System will make its first test flight in 2017, taking an unmanned Orion rocket around the moon.