Things just keep improving for NASA. First it pulled off the first launch of the Orion spacecraft in 2014, and then the agency followed up by discovering water on Mars and giving us unprecedented images of Pluto in 2015. Now it looks like things are going to get even better in 2016.
Why? Well, for one thing, Congress has finally given NASA's budget a hefty increase. After years of getting by on a shoestring, NASA is starting 2016 with something that hasn't been seen at the federal space agency in years: proper funding. In December, Congress passed a bill giving NASA $19.3 billion for 2016, an increase from 2015 of more than $1 billion and $750 million more than President Barack Obama had even requested. The timing couldn't be better. NASA is intent on getting astronauts back to cislunar space by the 2020s and landing them on Mars by the 2030s. While that may sound like a long way off, NASA has a ton of things to get done this year to make the ultimate goal of reaching the Red Planet a reality.
Of course, there's always a string or two attached with such good fortune. Congress didn't sign off on all of that funding without making a few stipulations. The main one is that NASA needs to spend $55 million of its budget to start building a deep space habitat that will house astronauts during the actual missions to Mars. And Congress isn't fooling around: NASA has to get to work on this thing now and must have a prototype to show Congress by 2018, just about 730 days from now, so NASA scientists have to move this thing along as quickly as they can.
The budget also embraced NASA's Commercial Crew program by allotting $1.24 billion to commercial exploration. This comes right as the commercial companies are finally making good headlines. After both Orbital and SpaceX saw their spacecraft explode in attempted launches in 2014, both companies managed to launch their respective spacecraft in 2015 without any explosions. On top of that, SpaceX pulled off something extraordinary when the company returned the first stage of an orbital rocket back to the ground, landing vertically on its tail, right in the center of the landing pad. It's a set of commercial victories that makes the goal of commercial companies (specifically SpaceX and Boeing) handling manned launches by 2017 seem like something that can actually happen.
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NASA officials were clear in 2015 that they are going to be focused on exploring cislunar space in the 2020s and getting to Mars by the 2030s, so they won't be handling manned launches or messing with anything in low-Earth orbit moving forward. Luckily, it's increasingly looking like commercial space companies will actually be able to step up in NASA's place. And now NASA will have enough of a budget in the coming year to continue to encourage commercial space exploration.
And NASA isn't stopping with Mars. Congress restored the space agency's planetary science budget to historically normal levels after slicing off about 25 percent of this program's budget in recent years. NASA has two big planetary science projects this year — the robotic orbiter Juno will reach Jupiter, while OSIRIS-REx will launch from Earth headed for the asteroid Bennu — but originally there weren't going to be any new exploration-focused probe-type projects in the next few years. However, that might change now that the planetary sciences program is actually being funded. Either way, this year will see us peering into the void at Jupiter and start us on a path to take a look at Bennu. OSIRIS is even supposed to pick up asteroid samples and send them back once it reaches the asteroid two years from now. Fingers crossed NASA gets more projects like this going now that the agency has the money.
Meanwhile, astronaut Scott Kelly is slated to return from his year-long stint on the International Space Station in March. Astronauts usually spend about six months on the ISS, but it's estimated it will take about eight months to get to Mars, so scientists are studying the effects of 12 months in space and how it ends up effecting Kelly's body. (There can be muscle atrophy, vision issues, loss of bone density and all kinds of other things when the human body is in orbit for a long period of time.) When Kelly gets back, NASA will have all kinds of helpful new info about what happens to the body in orbit, and that's another piece of information that will be useful in getting astronauts past low-Earth orbit and out into space sooner rather than later.
So by all accounts, it looks as if NASA is actually going to do what it was intended to do, and get ready to explore strange new worlds and such. Of course, that could all change in 2017. After all, it's impossible to tell if Congress will continue to fatten up the space agency's budget or opt to cut it to the bone again. Maybe NASA will make more tantalizing discoveries on Mars this year. Let's hope it does that and some other fancy things to keep reminding lawmakers why it's worth funding this thing.