Without spending a nickel, President Bush won widespread support from dissident elements of the space community Thursday when he committed the United States to embarking on a megabillion-dollar mission that will test human engineering and endurance to the limits.
The manned expedition to Mars that the President endorsed is not simply a longer journey than a trip to the moon, which takes only about a day and a half. It could cost hundreds of billions of dollars over the next three decades and the crew aboard the spacecraft would have to endure enormous risks during a voyage that would last between two and three years.
Despite those obstacles, leaders within the nation's space community hailed the President's proclamation because for the first time in more than a decade the United States has a goal in space exploration mandated from the top.
Blueprint Remained Dormant
"He has set our sights very clearly," said Thomas O. Paine, head of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration during the Apollo moon landings and the chief architect of a congressionally mandated blueprint for the future of the U.S. space program--a blueprint that has remained dormant since it was submitted to the White House several years ago.
"I think it's great," said John M. Logsdon, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University and a leading space analyst. "The President did exactly the right thing. He gave the kind of overall direction to why we are putting humans in space that so many have thought has been lacking."
Within hours of the President's speech, the nation's space community began healing some deep, self-inflicted wounds. Various factions have fought bitterly over which projects should get the highest priority, and that lack of unity has threatened to undermine congressional support for space exploration.
"Actually, I have not been a chronic admirer of Republican presidents," said Caltech planetary scientist Bruce Murray, who directed the Jet Propulsion Laboratory during one of its most productive periods. "But Bush said this is where we ought to go and that (sense of direction) has been the central problem since the end of Apollo."
Like a number of other scientists across the country, Murray has been pushing for years for a manned expedition to Mars. He has consistently criticized plans to build a manned, orbiting space station, claiming that the $30-billion project--which faces stiff opposition in Congress--is just another piece of equipment, not a goal.
That criticism softened considerably Thursday on the heels of the President's speech because the space station, like so many other projects in the space program, could play a role in any effort to send astronauts to Mars.
Louis Friedman, executive director of the Pasadena-based Planetary Society and another outspoken critic of the space station, also eased his position after hearing Bush's speech.
The strongest criticism of Bush's statement stemmed from the fact that he did not outline the role that other nations would have in a manned expedition to Mars, and many believe that only an international program is likely to succeed.
"International really means the Soviet Union," noted Murray, because the Soviets have the best information about the effects of long-term exposure to space. The record--one year--is held by a Soviet cosmonaut.
A manned expedition to Mars would be costly, "probably hundreds of billions of dollars over a long period of time," but it's "not going to cost much extra over the next five years," Logsdon said.
What is needed now, Friedman said, is to work out the details on how such a mission should be approached.
Many of the projects that would be precursors to a Mars mission are already on the drawing boards. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory is already developing plans for robotic, unmanned missions to Mars that would collect the information needed long before a manned expedition could be launched.
The Freedom Space Station would serve as the beginning step toward a permanent manned presence in space. It would be followed by an "international spaceport" where large vehicles could be assembled in space so that they could be launched toward Mars without having to burn the fuel necessary to overcome Earth's gravity.
Knowledge of Mining
A manned laboratory on the moon would allow astronauts to learn how to mine materials for permanent facilities, and possibly even extract oxygen and hydrogen from the lunar surface to fuel their rocket ships.
Even if all of that could be carried out successfully over the next couple of decades, the actual trip to Mars would be filled with such profound challenges that it may be beyond human endurance.
Throughout the years-long trip, the astronauts would be faced with the possibility of a meteoroid ripping through their spacecraft, causing rapid decompression that would kill them within seconds.
A violent storm on the surface of the sun could blast the spacecraft with deadly radiation. So the craft would require some sort of storm shelter.
Throughout much of the trip, the craft would be so far from Earth that the astronauts would be pretty much on their own. It would take about 30 minutes for messages to travel back and forth between the craft and Earth by the time the astronauts reached the vicinity of Mars.
The astronauts would probably have to spend a year there, waiting for Mars to reach the right point in its orbit for them to launch themselves back toward Earth.
And it would take about a year to get back.