2016 Was A Good Year For NASA. What's Next?

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Space exploration took significant leaps forward this year.

There were planets discovered and gravitational waves detected. NASA’s Juno spacecraft got an up close look at Jupiter. Astronaut Scott Kelly’s “year in space” mission provided a window into what a long-term space flight to Mars might mean for the human body.

Here & Now‘s Meghna Chakrabarti talks with NASA deputy administrator Dava Newman (@DavaExplorer) about the year’s accomplishments and setbacks, and what they might mean for the years ahead.

4 Of This Year’s Top Stories From Space
  1. Scientists confirm discovery of Earth-like planet in habitable zone
  2. NASA’s Juno spacecraft orbits Jupiter
  3. Gravitational waves discovery confirms Einstein’s theory
  4. Scott Kelly: What a year in space does to the human body

Interview Highlights

On reaching Jupiter with the Juno satellite

“We got to Jupiter, again, in orbit with our Juno mission, the goddess of Jupiter, to take the most precise data we’ve ever taken. And we’re still there, 20 months in orbit. That’s pretty exciting. All of our missions, a lot of times it takes us an entire decade to get there. This was five years.”

“We’ve had previous missions to Jupiter, but this one is in a really interesting polar orbit. The Jupiter environment is incredibly extreme. So, it’s about 20 million times more — the radiation environment is about 20 million times stronger than what we experience, and so we’re really trying to understand, in the Jupiter orbit, the environment. Really all of our exploring goes back to those enduring questions: Are there other habitable planets? Are we alone in the universe? And then, what about past life? Especially in our solar system.”

On the Kepler Mission

“We have over 3,000 candidate exoplanets, and a couple dozen that we say are in that habitable zone, the “Goldilocks” zone, I like to call it. Not too hot, not too cold, really the ideal Earth-like exoplanets, especially when it comes to the chemical compositions.”


On missions to Mars

“Did you know that we have seven — assets let’s call them? NASA has two rovers and we have three orbiters around Mars today, orbiting Mars. MAVEN, is maybe our most famous, and it’s given us incredible scientific data that we now … first papers are published on how Mars lost its atmosphere leaving us, today, with 1 percent carbon dioxide atmosphere. And the Indian Space Agency, MOM — I love their acronym, that’s the Mars Observer Mission — MOM is also in orbit. And … then, most recently, the ExoMars from ESA and Russia, their orbiter is working. So, we’re on it. We are definitely studying Mars every single day.”

“It’ll be a human mission, I’m thinking with a, probably a female commander, and we are closer today — humanity is closer today than we’ve ever been in history [to having a human on Mars.] You know, I work on that 24/7. Every day, every night, that’s kind of what I live and breathe and think about is getting that horizon goal of our journey to Mars, getting humans to the Red Planet. We’re still on track, and it’s affordable, sustainable to get there in the 2030s, so we have to keep making all the great progress that we’re making.”

On Commander Scott Kelly’s 520 days in space

“When it comes to Scott’s one-year mission, just couldn’t have gone better. Had over 400 science experiments, as you say, his Twitter feed, the social media, and guess what? Jeff Williams just broke Scott’s record being the American spending the most days in space. Now, not consecutive — Scott’s close to one year mission was the longest mission at once, but see Jeff Williams he just finished his third increment up on International Space Station, and move over, Scott and Jeff, ’cause guess what? Peggy Whitson’s up there, and she’s gonna break their records in 2017.”

On setbacks in 2016

“First and foremost, space flight is hard. There are accidents. SpaceX had an accident this year. In the previous year there were a couple accidents. But, you know what? That’s what the government does, that’s what NASA does. We’re investing in the private sector, we wanna see them all succeed. And so, we’re betting on their success. They’re excellent, they’re gonna succeed, and we’re investing right now for our International Space Station for cargo capability, in SpaceX, Orbital ATK, and then the next phase of contracts, a third company, Sierra Nevada Corporation, is on track to join both SpaceX and Orbital in terms of bringing cargo to the space station.”

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