The U.S. space agency is celebrating a major anniversary this month as it prepares for a challenging future in an age of strained budgets.
U.S. astronaut John Glenn first orbited the Earth 50 years ago on February 20, 1962. And when he returned, an adoring public greeted him, along with a burgeoning U.S. space program that propelled men to the moon in 1969.
Decades later, astronaut Cady Coleman is part of NASA's human space exploration legacy. She has been to space three times, including a nearly six-month stay on the International Space Station last year.
"The fact that we have a space station in orbit right now, six people living up there - working, doing experiments that we can't do down here - it makes me very excited about the future," said Coleman.
President Barack Obama says that future includes plans to send people to Mars.
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden recently outlined the proposed budget for next year.
"The missions currently at Mars, the Mars Science Laboratory on its way, and MAVEN [i.e., the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN mission] - well into development - will provide many years of data to help us understand the Red Planet and our needs in future years to meet the president's challenge to send humans to Mars in the mid-2030s," said Bolden.
Rovers, landers and orbiters already provide scientists with details about Mars. The Mars Science Laboratory, also known as Curiosity, is set to land on the Red Planet in August. The Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution(MAVEN), spacecraft that would study the Martian atmosphere could launch as early as next year.
But there are also projected cuts. Bolden has announced that NASA will not move forward with the ExoMars missions, a joint NASA-European Space Agency endeavor. The ExoMars mission set for 2016 to search for gaseous clues about possible life on Mars was supposed to be the first in a series of planned Mars collaborations.
NASA astronaut Cady Coleman says she is confident that humans will get to Mars one day.
"It's not going to be as soon as any of us would like, but we're not a patient people, not here in the U.S. and not around the world," noted Coleman. "People are destined to explore, and we live in a universe. Mars is the next logical choice, technically, and we'll be there when we're ready, and I'm a big fan of being ready. I actually want to send people to Mars and have them come back, and we have a lot of work to do before we're ready to do that."
Coleman says she would gladly return to space, a sentiment demonstrated by one of NASA's original seven astronauts.
Thirty-six years after his orbital flight, John Glenn broke new boundaries, lifting off aboard the space shuttle in 1998 to become, at age 77, the oldest person to fly in space.