5 gee-whiz moments from NASA director’s farewell tour at Stennis

Charles Bolden made his 10th visit to Stennis Space Center on Friday and the last before his eight-year mission as NASA administrator ends with the Obama administration.

Bolden showed he’s enthralled with the science of going into space as he gave a timetable that will take U.S. astronauts back toward the moon and onward to an asteroid and Mars, envisioning astronauts growing their own food on Mars.

Here are the top five stand-out points of his visit:

The U.S. journey to deep space fires up this year. Individual engine tests will continue in 2017, said Rick Gilbrech, director of Stennis Space Center. Scheduled for December on the B2 test stand are all four rockets whose 2 million pounds of combined thrust will “rattle the windows” in South Mississippi when fired simultaneously. These rockets will power the first Orion unmanned mission into space in 2018.

The first crewed mission is just four years away. Bolden said the first space mission with a crew is scheduled for 2021. Eight additional exploration missions are planned through the 2020s while NASA and its commercial partners develop the technology needed to go to Mars. That includes creating the stations in orbit around our planet that will fuel the rockets and supply the astronauts into deep space. “We can’t do that from Earth,” Bolden said.

The moon is a target, along with an asteroid. The first Orion missions will take place in the vicinity of the moon, but Bolden said NASA doesn’t plan to land on the moon. Instead, it will show commercial private developers how to build the equipment in exchange for an astronaut being on the crew of a moon landing. From there, the plan is for astronauts to land on an asteroid and collect samples.

They’ll pack light for Mars, with mostly carbon for 3D printing. “We’re looking at 3D-printing food, 3D-printing most everything,” Bolden said. The astronauts can’t take all the food and equipment they’ll need to Mars, because the planet is too far away and the supplies too heavy. Instead, they will pack supplies of carbon and print food and spare parts as needed. After the astronauts land on Mars, the idea is for them to grow food there, he said.

Plans are subject to change. The new Trump administration could alter NASA’s plan, said Bolden, who lived through the huge changes to the space program when President Obama cut most of the remaining space shuttle launches and canceled the Constellation program in favor of going to Mars. Gilbrech said the launch system NASA is building and Stennis is testing will be needed wherever American astronauts travel.