Mars is the Destination

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Editor's note: this article originally appeared in the 16 December 2002 issue of Aviation Week and Space Technology Magazine.

Space buffs and Mars-direct boosters have been understandably dismayed at the latest exploration scheme to emanate from the ninth floor of NASA headquarters--understandably but unnecessarily. The NASA Exploration Team (NEXT, in the inevitable acronym) has come up with a plan to buy exploration "by the yard," starting at the libration point between the Earth and the Moon and gradually moving outward. No bold excursions to Mars or a return to the moon for the NEXT bunch. NASA management wants a step-by-step approach that will allow humankind to expand its reach incrementally, unlimited by a single destination.

Given the present state of play in the world, that's about as good as it's going to get. But under the circumstances, that isn't so bad. We're still going to Mars; we're just not saying so right now. The good news is that Congress is going along, always a big plus when it comes time to pay the freight.

Lawmakers in both houses have already voted to fund NASA's space nuclear power initiative, a direct offshoot of the four-year-old NEXT planning process. Administrator Sean O'Keefe picked up the space nuke plan as soon as he showed up at NASA almost a year ago, and plugged it right into the agency's Fiscal 2003 budget request. Final action is due in January, when lawmakers return to take up the unfinished business of the 107th Congress, but the deal is done.

O'Keefe sometimes leaves his sincerity open to question, as when he habitually starts his response to some congressional zinger with the words "thank you for that question, senator." But he does go out of his way to insist the space nuclear power initiative is intended for civil space, and is not a backdoor way to get some more taxpayer money over to his pals at the Pentagon to use on space-based radars and directed-energy weapons.

Instead, the neophyte administrator is selling space nukes as a generic technology to enhance all kinds of science-driven missions around the solar system. Need to go into orbit around Europa or Pluto? Nuclear-electric propulsion can make it happen. Need a long-duration rover that can probe the Martian poles and run at night? An advanced radioisotope thermoelectric generator should do the trick. Want to live on the Moon or Mars? A nifty little space-rated fission reactor should keep the lights burning and the oxygen flowing.

Congress is about to make a five-year, $950-million down payment on that kind of capability, which is saying something. It isn't a trip to Mars by a human crew, not by a long shot. But it's a start, and in this day and age O'Keefe and his con gressional liaison staff deserve some credit for pulling it off. It took President John F. Kennedy to get the ball rolling on Project Apollo, and in 1961 when he did it, going to the Moon was an extension of the Cold War arms race with the Soviet Union. There's no Cold War today, but it might be easier to sell a push to Mars if there was. Cold wars are cheaper than hot ones, and space-racing is cheaper than fighting. Estimates of the cost of a war with Iraq are already bumping the $200-billion mark, particularly if the Bush administration decides to stick around to clean up the mess afterward. That $200 billion would buy a lot of space exploration, but it just isn't going to happen in today's environment, and the NEXT folks at NASA know it.

This White House simply isn't interested in civil space. President Bush didn't even visit Johnson Space Center in Houston when he was governor of Texas, and with war clouds gathering he isn't likely to develop a sudden fascination with the subject. His father at least made an attempt to push human space exploration when he was president, but the ill-starred "Space Exploration Initiative"--announced in July 1989 on the 20th anniversary of the first lunar landing--went nowhere.

"The Kennedyesque speech has happened," noted Marcia Smith, a respected space policy analyst at the Congressional Research Service. "It didn't work."

But that doesn't mean human exploration of the Moon and Mars are off the books. Indeed, where else is there to go? We went to the Moon first because it was closest, and Mars is the most accessible planet. Earthbound geologists believe the Moon holds remnants of Earth's original surface, deposited there as debris from cataclysmic collisions that took place before time, heat and water transformed it into what they find today. They certainly want to go back.

MARS, OF COURSE, means life. Dan Goldin, O'Keefe's predecessor, triggered a flurry of interest in robotic exploration with his dramatic announcement in August 1996 that a meteorite found in Antarctica might contain the fossil remains of Martian life. While subsequent analysis has shown those results to be highly ambiguous, the red planet (and life science research on the blue one) continues to offer tantalizing hints that exploration of Mars by robots and humans may finally answer the primordial question "are we alone?"

Astronauts in spacesuits won't be the only ones with a chance to answer that question. NASA and the European Space Agency are already planning huge space telescopes to look for the chemical signatures of life on planets circling other stars. The NEXT studies have suggested that even bigger instruments with a better chance of finding life can be built by human assemblers at the libration point between the Earth and the Moon and sent to the darkside Sun-Earth libration point using some of the new propulsion technologies under study. At the same time, astronauts and flight controllers can perfect the skills they will need for a Mars mission, much as they used the Gemini program to learn how to rendezvous and dock on the way to the Moon ( AW&ST Dec. 2, p. 48).

The NEXT approach shows what can happen when the human spaceflight gang at NASA joins forces with the space scientists. NEXT originated in a planning effort Goldin set up in 1999 under the leadership of Ed Weiler, an astronomer who heads the Office of Space Science at NASA headquarters, and Joe Rothenberg, Weiler's counterpart in the Office of Space Flight at the time. Instead of fighting over money like they usually do, the scientists and the astronauts apparently have cooperated on building a road map that could take them to the Moon and on to Mars when there is money to go there.

Space exploration is not really O'Keefe's gig. He was hired to get spending on the International Space Station under control, and he readily admits that his main goal is getting to Feb. 19, 2004, without a major catastrophe. "That's the day that Node 2 is going to be launched and deployed to the International Space Station," he says. "If we don't reach Node 2, core configuration, you can forget about any excursion after that."

BUT THE MEN AND WOMEN who put together the NEXT strategy are in the space business for the long haul. They'll be around long after Sean O'Keefe has gone on to the reward he has no doubt been promised if he succeeds with the station. They want to go to Mars, and they seem to have hit on a practical way to get there. The details of their approach are certainly open to debate, but the overall strategy looks like it could work.

There is no known El Dorado to drive space exploration, no Spice Islands in space or oil reserves on Mars that we know of. The Cold War is over, but peace hasn't exactly broken out to pay a dividend. Simple human needs for food, clothing and shelter on Earth will always outweigh the abstract attraction of the unknown. Still, human curiosity is a powerful need too, and the science addressed by the NEXT studies can help meet it.

The nuclear initiative--and earlier, funded NEXT-inspired studies of in-space propulsion technology and the radiation environment beyond Earth orbit--show that some money is available today. It's going to take a lot of funds to get to Mars, and that cash simply isn't available today. But as the late Sen. Everett McKinley Dirksen (R-Ill.) famously noted, "a billion here and a billion there, and before you know it you're talking about real money."

Copyright December 16, 2002 The McGraw-Hill Companies Inc.


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