After the International Space Station

While the International Space Station is an amazing facility in low-Earth orbit, it is only a first step. Moving beyond to destinations such as Earth-Moon Lagrange points, the Moon itself and even Mars is a necessity for the evolution and survival of the human species.

Since the end of the Apollo program, humans have been relegated to less than 500 miles above the planet. Now, for the first time since the 1970s, humans are poised to once again start exploring beyond LEO.

However, were it not for the ISS, these dreams of exploring the Moon, Mars and beyond would likely still be years away at best. It is because of the groundbreaking work being done aboard the outpost that are paving the way to allow humans to live longer and farther away from Earth.

There are a number of different organizations working on programs geared toward making humanity multi-planetary.

NASA's Orion and Space Launch System

Orion in flight over Earth. Image Credit: NASA

Orion in flight over Earth. Image Credit: NASA

Based in part off space shuttle-era technology, the Space Launch System is NASA's rocket designed to take humans beyond LEO to destinations in deep space. When people are riding atop the vehicle, they will reside inside Orion, the space agency's next-generation spacecraft.

The first launch of SLS with Orion, Exploration Mission 1, will occur by November 2018. The uncrewed launch will be part of the block 1A SLS variant. That mission will see the Orion capsule sent into a distant lunar retrograde orbit. It will be the first human rated spacecraft to reach the vicinity of the Moon since 1972.

The evolution of NASA's Space Launch System. Image Credit: NASA

The evolution of NASA's Space Launch System. Image Credit: NASA

EM-2, the second SLS launch will occur by 2023. It will be the first launch of the more powerful SLS Block 1B, which includes an Exploration Upper Stage. That mission will essentially be a repeat of the EM-1 mission, only with crew.

Eventually, NASA wants to use the rocket to send a crew to a piece of an asteroid that will be robotically captured and placed in lunar orbit by the middle of the 2020s. This Asteroid Redirect Crewed Mission is expected to launch by 2026.

Eventually, more upgrades will make the SLS powerful enough to send crew and advanced hardware to Mars. Per a directive from President Barack Obama in 2010, the expects humans to orbit Mars by the mid 2030s.

Video courtesy of NASA

SpaceX's Mars Colonial Transporter and Red Dragon

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NextSTEP-2: Buiding Deep Space Habitats

Between SpaceX and NASA, no other major organization is poring money on their own into going beyond LEO. However as of 2016, through NASA's second Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships program, also called NextSTEP-2, the agency has chosen six different companies to develop deep space habitats.

This is partially to comply with the U.S. Congress' mandate for the space agency to have a ground prototype of a deep space habitat ready by the end of 2018. After all, if humans are going to go beyond LEO for extended amounts of time, they will need a place to live beyond a cramped capsule.

The ground prototypes developed will be used for three main purposes: supporting integrated systems testing, human factors and operations testing and to help define overall system functionality. Additionally, standards, common interfaces and other requirements as well as options for using SLS, Orion and other commercial spacecraft will be defined. The goal is risk reduction.

Lockheed Martin

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Bigelow Aerospace

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Boeing

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Orbital ATK

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Sierra Nevada Corporation

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NanoRacks

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