Sunday, July 18, 1999
Still to come: moon, Mars and beyond
BY TIM BONFIELD
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Be it chasing comets or sending a manned mission to Mars, the end of the 20th Century heralds a re-birth of U.S. space exploration.
| ZOOM |
SET AS WALLPAPER:|
Click here for bigger image, then right click to Set As Wallpaper
Even though its budget has shrunk every year since 1993, NASA continues to develop unmanned missions to study the stars, rendezvous with comets and probe the more distant planets of our solar system.
But several projects some that may take decades to complete and cost billions that NASA doesn't have now will focus on putting people in space for longer periods than ever before.
International space station
The United States, Russia, Japan, Canada and the European Space Agency are leading players in a 16-nation effort to build a new space habitat and laboratory that will dwarf Russia's aging Mir station.
Some parts of the Internation Space Station already have been launched. Other parts have been delayed by economic trouble in Russia. The next U.S. flight for the project is set for Dec. 2.
The ISS will be four times larger than Mir. NASA estimates it will take 43 Russian rocket launches and U.S. shuttle flights to carry 1 million pounds of components into orbit. Assembly will require more than 1,700 hours of spacewalking.
The yet-to-be-named station will include seven laboratory modules, a power plant, two lifeboats, a robotic crane, multiple solar wings and a single chamber that combines bedroom, bathroom and kitchen for a crew of six.
Early estimates put the construction cost at more than $30 billion, although some critics predict the final bill will be closer to $100 billion. The early deadline for completing the station is 2004.
The space station goals include measuring the effects of long-term life in zero gravity and the ability to grow food in space information needed for any future manned missions to Mars or for building a Moon base.
The station also will test various high-tech microgravity manufacturing processes. The hope is that researchers can develop new materials or medications valuable enough to consider building orbital factories.
Next generation shuttle
NASA, military and private researchers are racing to come up with a better, cheaper, reusable space plane to replace the aging Space Shuttle fleet.
How many people are driving around in vehicles that are 18 years old? That's how old the shuttle program is now, said Roger Launius, NASA's chief historian.
In its 90-plus missions, the space shuttle has accomplished many feats launching satellites and interplantary probes, fixing the Hubble Space Telescope, docking with Mir, conducting numerous astronomy studies, testing new materials and human responses to microgravity, plus ferrying supplies and crew for the fledgling space station.
Now NASA is working with Orbital Sciences Corp. to build the X-34 demonstration vehicle to test key elements of a new space plane.
The first X-34 was unveiled April 30 at the NASA Dryden Flight Research Center in Edwards, Calif. It is a single-engine, robot-controlled rocket plane that will be launched from an L-1011 jet liner.
The main goal is to get the cost of launching material and people into orbit to below $1,000 per pound. Shuttle payloads cost at least 10 times that much.
A cheap rocket plane could open up space for tourism and commercial purposes, such as orbital manufacturing or asteroid mining.
Flight frequency is another key goal. The shuttle fleet never came close to early plans of launching once a week. The most has been seven in a single year. Among the 27 planned test flights for the X-34 will be an attempt to launch within 24 hours of landing from its previous mission.
It also would have military applications. At Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, senior design engineer John Livingston is among the experts also working on space plane designs.
We want to make sure the design for any second-generation shuttle meets our needs, Mr. Livingston said.
Men on Mars
Little green men living on the Red Planet have long been staples of science fiction. But a series of recent research findings and robotic probes has sparked new interest in the hunt for signs of ancient life on Mars.
In 1995, scientists from NASA's Johnson Space Center and Stanford University reported finding fossil evidence of ancient microbial life in a Martian meteorite recovered from the Antarctic. The claim has been disputed by other scientists, but it still prompted a new wave of robotic probes.
The 1997 Mars Pathfinder mission, with its robotic rover Sojourner and unusual airbag landing technique, sent back more than 17,000 images and set records for people accessing its Internet information site. No signs of life were found, but lots of stuff was learned.
Among the findings: Mars soil is more yellowish-brown than red. Water once flowed in streams and deep channels. A weak magnetic field suggests that Mars, like Earth, has a crust, a mantle and an iron core. Volcanic heat plus surface water are considered critical elements for life.
The Mars Global Surveyor, also launched in 1997, continues to orbit the planet, mapping land features in more detail than ever done before.
Meanwhile, the Mars Climate Orbiter is expected to reach orbit in September 1999 to conduct the first full-scale study of Martian weather. Another craft named the Mars Polar Lander is expected to land in December 1999 near Mars' south pole to look for frozen water.
All these probes are precursors to a manned mission to Mars.
NASA envisions a $20 billion to $25 billion mission that would put a crew of astronauts on Mars for 500 days, after first sending an unmanned cargo vehicle and an Earth-return ship.
While the project remains mostly on paper, real human studies have begun to test the technology needed to get there.
In September 1997, a crew of four locked themselves inside a three-level chamber at the Johnson Space Center for a 90-day test to grow some food while recycling air, water and bodily fluids. Longer-term tests are planned.
Building a Moon base
In March 1998, the $63 million Lunar Prospector (which cost about half as much as the $120 million production costs of the movie Godzilla) made a startling discovery.
Its neutron spectrometer revealed signs of an estimated 1 billion to 10 billion tons of water ice locked in the shadows of thousands of moon craters; confirming and expanding previous data from the 1994 Clementine mission.
NASA officials say there could be water enough to build a moon base or to fuel rocket ships cruising even deeper into space.
The data suggest the ice is in layers, covered with up to 18 inches of soil. Even more ice could be in layers below 2 feet of soil, scientists said.
Assuming equipment can be built to withstand temperatures more than 250 degrees below zero, crews could harvest the ice, thaw it with solar reflectors, then use a chemical process to separate hydrogen and oxygen.
The potential value of a moon base ranges from putting telescopes on the dark side of the moon, to mining valuable minerals such as helium-3 (which can be used as fuel in nuclear fusion), to serving as a low-gravity launch platform for other space ventures, to pure tourism. Imagine what some people would pay to stay at a moon resort.
The Galileo spacecraft, launched in 1989, has made four close passes of Europa, one of Jupiter's larger moons. The pictures suggest that Europa has an ocean of slush, perhaps even water, under its crust of ice.
Where there is water, there could be life. Earth studies under the polar caps have found lifeforms scientists never thought could survive in the harsh conditions, said Mr. Launius.
NASA plans to launch another robot probe of Europa in 2003. Should it find signs of life, a new space race to put human explorers on Europa may not be far behind.
The Moon Landing: 30 Years Later
Neil Armstrong, The Reluctant Hero
Lebanon's code of silence shields Armstrong
Landing's legacy is still being created
Still to come: the moon, Mars and beyond
NASA research is spinoff city
Flight abounded with drama
Infographic: The descent of the Eagle
Where the moonwalkers are now
Ohio leads nation in number of astronauts
Cyberspace a great resource for outer space
Special multimedia section from Associated Press