NASA Sends Congress Long Awaited Human Exploration Roadmap

NASA Sends Congress Long Awaited Human Exploration Roadmap

NASA has sent Congress the human exploration roadmap required by the 2017 NASA Transition Authorization Act.  It was due December 1, 2017.  The law requires that it be updated as needed, but not less than biennially.  This initial version lays out milestones through 2024 and identifies “post-2024 decisions” that need to be made.  The submission of the report comes days before NASA officials are set to testify to House and Senate committees on NASA’s human exploration plans and U.S. global leadership in space.

Section 432 (b) of the law (P.L. 115-10) required NASA to:

… develop a human exploration roadmap, including a critical decision plan, to expand human presence beyond low-Earth orbit to the surface of Mars and beyond, considering potential  interim destinations such as cis-lunar space and the moons of Mars.

Three pages of specifics followed that general statement.

NASA’s 21-page response does not go into many details, however.  Entitled the “NASA Space Exploration Campaign Report,” it lists five strategic goals:

1. Transition U.S. human spaceflight in LEO to commercial operations that support NASA and the needs of an emerging commercial economy.
2. Lead the emplacement of capabilities that support lunar surface operations and facilitate missions beyond cislunar space.
3. Foster scientific discovery and characterization of lunar resources through a series of robotic missions.
4. Return U.S. astronauts to the surface of the Moon for a sustained campaign of exploration and utilization.
5. Demonstrate on the Moon the capabilities required for human missions to Mars and other destinations.

It reiterates that it is developing an “open architecture” to allow commercial and international partners to participate.  A few of the milestones listed between now and 2024 include:

Low Earth Orbit

  • 2018: complete 13 selected LEO commercialization studies; decide on commercial LEO development; decision on ISS commercial and private astronaut use policy
  • 2019: competitive selection of funding/logistical support for commercial ISS module and/or free-flyer space station development
  • 2022: based on status of commercial module and/or free flyer space station, fine-tune plan to end Federal funding of ISS by 2025 to ensure continuous access to a LEO space platform

Interestingly, the report says “U.S. companies will, by no later than 2020, transport astronauts” to LEO and rendezvous with ISS.  The current schedule calls for both SpaceX and Boeing to launch crews to ISS in 2019.  At a Washington Space Business Roundtable luncheon today, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said he is confident the current dates will hold, even though this report provides margin for slippage into the next year.


  • 2019: decision on a date for a demonstration mission for a human-class lunar lander capability, and decision to begin human lunar surface architecture and mission analyses to support Americans on the lunar surface no later than 2029
  • 2020: procuring commercial lunar payload services with end-to-end delivery of payloads to the lunar surface starting in 2020
  • 2020:  first uncrewed launch of SLS/Orion to lunar vicinity  (no month is listed)
  • June 2022: first crewed launch of SLS/Orion around the Moon
  • 2022: first element of the Gateway placed into lunar orbit (no month is listed)
  • 2024: decision on date and method of human lunar surface return and mission objectives


  • 2019: decision on round trip robotic Mars sample return mission implementation and architecture and target launch date
  • 2021: based on results from Mars 2020, MOXIE and helicopter performance, modify Mars-forward technology R&D portfolio
  • 2024: decide on architecture of human Mars orbital mission and begin associated systems development

Beyond 2024, the end of a possible second Trump term, the report is vague.

House Science, Space, and Technology Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) praised the report in a statement to  It “lays out a bold and achieveable plan … and also helpfully specifies … key critical decision points for future human space exploration” as required by the law, he said.

The submission of the report to Congress comes less than a week before congressional hearings are scheduled in the House and Senate.  The hearings are both on Wednesday at approximately the same time.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine will testify to the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee’s space subcommittee at 2:15 pm ET on “Global Space Race: Ensuring the United States Remains the Leader in Space.”  He is the only witness.

Across Capitol Hill, at 2:00 pm ET, the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee’s space subcommittee will have its hearing on “60 Years of NASA’s Human Space Exploration: Past, Present, and Future.” The witnesses are Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations, and three NASA Center directors:  Mark Geyer, Johnson Space Center; Bob Cabana, Kennedy Space Center; and Jody Singer, Marshall Space Flight Center.

Update:  This article was updated with the comment from Chairman Smith.


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