NASA has launched a new department aimed at embarking on the next chapter of human space exploration less than a month after the retirement of the 30-year-old space shuttle program in July.
The organization, known as the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, combines the Space Operations and Exploration System departments. It will focus on International Space Station Operations and exploration past low-Earth orbit, including trips to asteroids, Mars and the Moon.
"America is opening a bold new chapter in human space exploration," NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said in a statement.
Associate Administrator Bill Gerstenmaier, who previously served as the associate administrator for Space Operations, will head the new office.
NASA is hoping to redirect attention from the space shuttle program, which has traditionally been the most visible part of its activities, toward the numerous possibilities of deep space exploration. Its new department will be charged with overseeing that task, which includes targeting human missions farther into the solar system than ever before traveled.
President Obama has challenged NASA to put astronauts on an asteroid by 2025 and in orbit of Mars - with the intent of landing - sometime after 2035. Space.com reports that the United States must first develop a new heavy-lift rocket capable of traveling the distance, as well as a capsule to bring people safely there and back again.
The source reports that the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate will also oversee NASA's Commercial Crew Development program, which aims to encourage private companies to build commercial spaceships that will carry astronauts to low-Earth orbit and the International Space Station.
The companies Blue Origin, Sierra Nevada, SpaceX and Boeing have reportedly won contracts from NASA and will receive $269.3 million in grants toward the project.
NASA will continue to operate the International Space Station, whose orbiting laboratory is expected to run until at least 2020. Until the private spaceships are ready, U.S. astronauts will rent rides to the station on Russian rockets.
Some companies are hoping to take spaceship construction one step further in order to make space tourism open to the masses. The Virginia-based company Space Adventures has already succeeded in sending seven private citizens to the International Space Station in explorations lasting between 8 to 15 days. Several other companies, including Virgin Galactic, RocketShip Tours and Blue Origin, are also developing suborbital flights, which - at about $200,000 per passenger - would journey just beyond the Earth's atmosphere, allowing passengers to experience up to six minutes of weightlessness and a view of the curved Earth below.