Commentary | Countdown to Human Space Exploration

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Successful human missions to the Moon, asteroids and beyond are critical to our nation’s global competitiveness and continued leadership in space exploration. Today on Florida’s Space Coast, Lockheed Martin and Boeing engineers are developing the Orion spacecraft and Space Launch System (SLS), two programs that will help foster a new era of technological development and space-based discovery.

Even before the retirement of the space shuttle program, Florida state and local economic development agencies were working hard to enable rapid renovation of key Kennedy Space Center (KSC) facilities such as the legacy Apollo era Operations and Checkout Building, to develop the structure into a modern, state-of-the-art spacecraft manufacturing operation.

Space Florida, the state’s spaceport authority and aerospace development agency, worked with the Economic Development Commission of Florida’s Space Coast to secure the infrastructure modification funding that enabled the assembly of the Orion spacecraft by NASA and Lockheed Martin.

Today, additional, similar arrangements are taking place at KSC, renovating existing infrastructure to suit next-generation space exploration programs.

Over the past 12 months, 66,000 custom-designed pieces of Orion — a critical component of America’s successful future in human space exploration — have come together in that historic building, and hundreds of Central Florida jobs are anticipated as a result of the Orion program. As of this moment, we are less than one year away from Orion’s first orbital mission, when the spacecraft will travel farther into space than any capsule since the days of Apollo.

During this test, an uncrewed Orion will launch from Cape Canaveral’s Space Launch Complex 37 atop a United Launch Alliance Delta 4 Heavy rocket and travel about 5,800 kilometers into space (15 times the distance from Earth to the international space station) before landing. The flight will test and validate many systems aboard the spacecraft, such as its heat shield and thermal protection capabilities, to help reduce risks and costs for future human missions.

Similar progress has been made with the SLS — a rocket more powerful than the Saturn 5 — in preparation for history-making human spaceflight missions and a support role for a variety of space science initiatives and national security payloads. Boeing is developing the core stages of this heavy-lift launch vehicle, and its Florida-based workforce is supporting SLS manufacturing and system validation testing at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility and Stennis Space Center. A first test fire of the SLS is anticipated in 2016. Meanwhile, KSC is modernizing its ground operations infrastructure to support SLS processing and launch activities.

The 2014 Orion test mission is a precursor to an Orion-SLS test flight in 2017 and the first crewed operational missions scheduled to commence in 2021. These important and challenging events represent humanity’s renewed quest to push the boundaries of knowledge and exploration.

In Florida, we feel fortunate that support for our nation’s space leadership through NASA’s next-generation space exploration program begins here. The future is bright and the exciting continuation of the groundbreaking work our scientists and engineers have been producing for generations will rumble to life in less than a year. The countdown to America reasserting its leadership role internationally in space exploration has begun.

 

Frank DiBello is the president of Space Florida, the state’s spaceport authority and aerospace development organization. Lynda Weatherman is president and chief executive of the Economic Development Commission of Florida’s Space Coast.