NASA seeks rationale for manned mission to Mars Plan, budget that can win OK of Congress are goals

August 20, 1996|By KNIGHT-RIDDER NEWS SERVICE

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- A dozen NASA engineers from across the country are gathering in Houston today to figure out how and why the nation should send people to Mars.

The weeklong meeting at the Johnson Space Center is very preliminary. However, it is an essential first step toward planning a massive, $25 billion mission to send humans to another planet, NASA officials said. The engineers will try to come up with a rationale, a cost estimate and a general plan to get there.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration has made two other weak forays into planning a human mission to Mars, but experts give this latest effort a better chance of survival. That's because of a new angle that NASA can sell to taxpayers: confirming that life once existed on Mars, as scientists think they discovered earlier this month.

"The discovery really gives a legitimate reason for somebody to ask how do we do this?" said Kent Joosten, a mission analyst at Johnson who is part of the unnamed study team. "What would it really take to do this? What are the pieces that are [lying] around that would make this happen?"

The engineers are hoping to find the answers before a November space summit called by President Clinton, Joosten said.

The start of this latest study is significant because Clinton has shown interest for the first time in sending people to Mars, said Michael Griffin, a former NASA associate administrator in charge of space exploration.

One of the key questions facing the engineers is how to justify spending $25 billion or more to send people there.

Some scientists say they need people to search for life signs or fossils on Mars and that robots just can't do the job well enough because they can't adapt and think. NASA officials said they will only send people to Mars after 10 robotic probes have discovered as much as possible about life there.

The first astronauts could be on their way to Mars between 2011 and 2018, said Carl Pilcher, NASA's chief of long-range planning for space science. Missions to Mars would take six months each way. Once there, astronauts would be stuck on the planet for a year or more, while waiting for Mars to reach its closest pass to Earth.

Engineers across the country have come up with three ways to send people to Mars, and each plan relies on spaceships that have not yet been developed:

Two years before sending people to the planet, NASA would send two unmanned ships to Mars to deposit a return rocket for astronauts, a rover for traveling the surface and a power plant that can convert the Martian atmosphere into methane for rocket fuel. Then the astronauts would arrive on Mars in a small capsule, along with another unmanned ship that would drop off living quarters. Astronauts would return in the methane-powered rocket.

NASA could launch two unmanned cargo ships into Earth's orbit with each craft carrying sections of a larger nuclear-powered rocket. Those cargo ships would wait in Earth's orbit, until astronauts from a space shuttle assembled the pieces, climbed aboard and fired the nuclear rockets for about 30 minutes to head to Mars. Nuclear power then would be used for the return flight, too.

In a variation of the second option, NASA could use the nuclear-powered rocket to get to Mars, but use the methane-powered ship to get back.

A Mars study could scuttle or at least change the nature of a proposal to send people back to the moon, Joosten said. Or the moon mission, which is still being studied, could become a practice flight for Mars, he said.

NASA has to come up with a plan that it can sell to Congress and that doesn't bankrupt the federal budget.

NASA Administrator Daniel S. Goldin challenged the engineering group to find a way to land people on Mars for $25 billion. He sees the effort as part of an international program, with the U.S. share capped at $16 billion and spread over eight years, Pilcher said.

Japan and Russia may already be considering going to Mars, and could be candidates for the partnership, officials said.

Pub Date: 8/20/96

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