Space agency presses full-speed ahead on exploration plans
NASA might be operating under a lean budget, but that isn't preventing officials at the 50-year-old space agency from dreaming big. They still have a vision of returning astronauts to the moon and using that as the jumping-off point for the first manned exploration of Mars.
Both endeavors will be managed on a "go as we can afford to pay approach," officials say. At that rate, it could be a long time before either goal is realized. The Government Accountability Office has estimated that the combined missions will cost $230 billion. NASA's total budget request for fiscal 2009 was $17.6 billion.
The projects also face technological challenges. The space shuttle is set to retire in 2010, so astronauts will need a new mode of transportation. Enter the Ares I launch vehicle and the Orion exploration vehicle. But "knowledge gaps" are hindering development of hardware for these vehicles, GAO said in testimony before a House Science and Technology subcommittee (GAO-08-186T) in April. There are no industrially made thermal protection systems that will fit the Orion capsule, for instance, and NASA has yet to develop a solution.
In the meantime, NASA is surveying the landscape of the moon and Mars so when the transport vehicles are ready, astronauts will have a better idea of where to land. In November the agency will launch the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, which will spend a year mapping the moon to determine the best landing sites there.
The orbiter will be launched from the Atlas V rocket, which also will carry the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite. The upper stage of the satellite is designed to crash into the moon to determine whether there is ice formed from water in a crater on the planet's south pole.
NASA continued its unmanned exploration of Mars in May with its $420 million Phoenix Mars Lander built by Lockheed Martin Corp. and managed by scientists at the University of Arizona and the California Institute of Technology's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Among other tasks, the Phoenix will analyze soil and ice samples to determine whether the Red Planet's northern plains could have once been habitable.
The daily tasks of the Phoenix are managed by software engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, who program 1,000 to 1,500 lines of code and beam it 170 million miles to the landing vehicle. The code controls various systems on the Phoenix, including its arm, camera and soil analysis equipment.
The Mars and moon endeavors will require a strong research presence on the ground, too. NASA opened the Lunar Science Institute at its Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif., in April, to support the moon mission. Scientists from around the world converged on the facility in July on the 39th anniversary of the Apollo II moon landing, to discuss the return trip. The difference is "this time we're going to stay," Ames Director S. Pete Worden told conference attendees. "This is the first step in settling the solar system."
It appears that budget obstacles and technological challenges haven't tempered NASA's ambitious agenda yet.