Feature

The future of the space program

The world’s first space tourist, Dennis Tito, said his visit to the International Space Station was “paradise.” What has become of dreams of building colonies on the moon, landing on Mars, and sending manned missions deep into the heavens?

What ever happened to the space program?

Budget cuts and lack of public interest have eroded its ambitions. In the 1960s, in the euphoria leading up to the first moon landing, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration was gearing up to build a permanent moon base, and then to put a man on Mars before the end of the 20th century. But funding for the space missions peaked several years before astronaut Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon in 1969. After that first moon walk, the political appeal of the space program faded as attention turned to expensive social and national-defense programs. President Nixon scaled back so abruptly that three Apollo landings, their rockets already built, were scrubbed to save money. NASA’s engineers shelved their dreams of a Mars mission and began designing the relatively thrifty, reusable space-shuttle fleet that has become the backbone of the current space program.

What are NASA’s ambitions today?

In the short term, NASA is focusing most of its energy and money on the International Space Station. One of the station’s principal purposes is to enable NASA to study how humans are affected by extended trips in space. Astronauts will spend several months in the space station on some of the early trips, and a year or longer as construction ends and visits can be safely extended. Under weightless conditions in space, muscles atrophy and bones weaken. Without a normal cycle of day and night, astronauts often can’t sleep, and many of them lose weight. These are just a few of the health problems NASA will have to solve before sending people beyond Earth’s orbit.

When will we send astronauts to Mars?

NASA chief Daniel Goldin says that with a little luck we can do it within 20 years. But it’s a long trip—119 million miles each way—and will probably require more than 18 months for the complete journey. But first, NASA must overcome several major obstacles. Engineers will have to figure out how to shield space travelers from the stream of solar particles and cosmic rays that will bombard their ship during the long journey. These particles easily penetrate the metals used on spaceships, and could cause cancer or brain damage as they pass through the astronauts’ bodies. Even if this problem can be minimized, astronauts will also have to contend with prolonged weightlessness and isolation. To minimize the time spent in space, NASA hopes to improve upon today’s rocket engines, which would require about eight months for each leg of the trip. Engineers hope to develop “plasma” engines that could speed astronauts to Mars in just three months. Astronauts may have to spend a year on the Red Planet in any event, as they wait for it to swing into the best position for a return flight. Depending on the technology developed by then, the astronauts may spend that time mining Mars for materials to make fuel for their return trip.

What would it take to get there?

It would take a huge financial commitment to confront the obstacles to a Mars mission. When former president George Bush asked NASA whether the U.S. could build a moon outpost and send astronauts to Mars, the agency told him it would cost $450 billion. NASA’s annual budget is not quite $15 billion. NASA hopes that the economy will keep growing, so that eventually the cost of mounting an interplanetary mission will seem like a drop in the budgetary bucket.

How goes the search for extraterrestrial life?

One thing NASA can do in this era of limited budgets is look for life in other corners of the solar system using unmanned spacecraft. Our planetary neighbor, Mars, has long been seen as the likeliest place to find it, due to the presence of a thin atmosphere, polar ice caps, and geologic evidence of water flow in the past. A NASA probe called Odyssey will reach Mars’ orbit in October; it will search for water and minerals that could indicate whether the planet is able to sustain life. Another spacecraft will reach Mars in 2005 to take high-resolution photographs of the surface. Then, in 2007, NASA plans to land a robotic rover on targeted areas of Mars, where it will scoop up samples and analyze them for evidence of life.

What about life on other planets?

The best bet aside from Mars is Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons. NASA plans to send an orbiter to Europa in 2008 to inspect a layer of ice covering its surface. The probe will use a device called a radar sounder to see whether there is a huge liquid ocean under the surface of the ice, warmed by geothermal energy. If so, Europa could have an environment with all the ingredients believed necessary for life.

Will average citizens ever get to space?

Yes, but it will be an expensive vacation. Anyone who can’t wait a few years will have to use Dennis Tito’s travel agents and be prepared to write a check for $20 million to the Russian government. But Space Adventures, the Arlington, Va., company that helped arrange Tito’s trip, has already booked 100 travelers on a suborbital jet that doesn’t even exist yet. The craft, to be laden with a few tourists at a time, would shoot 62 miles up, to the threshold of space, where passengers would spend a few minutes in zero gravity before coming down. The company hopes to get its first tourists launched in 2005. There are also competing space-hotel schemes, one of which hopes to develop a tiny space station for civilians within 10 years. Guests and supplies would be ferried up by visiting Russian Soyuz spacecraft. The trip’s projected price tag is $200,000 to $300,000 per guest, but the designers hope the cost will eventually drop to the range of power vacations already popular on the ground, such as an African safari or a jaunt to Antarctica. By 2020, travelers may be able to book a voyage with a favorite hotel chain. Hilton Hotels is looking into whether it could make a success of a space hotel, and Budget Suites of America has made it a goal to launch a futuristic cruise ship that would fly to the moon.

Floor, please

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