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Manned Mission to Mars. Interest grows in an international effort to send humans to Mars early in 21st century

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MAY DAY 1989. A Soviet robot spacecraft hovers just 160 feet from Phobos, one of the two small Martian moons. Suddenly, brilliant flashes from a laser stab the moonlet's surface. Vaporized material escapes Phobos's feeble gravity and drifts toward the waiting spacecraft's sensors. Meanwhile, a small probe sent from the robot explorer hops about like a mechanical frog metering surface composition.

Back on Earth, Soviet scientists and their collaborators from more than a dozen countries -- including perhaps the United States -- eagerly await the first on-site analysis ever made of one of the legendary moons of Mars.

This imaginative mission, which the Soviets have already announced, ``is the next step'' in an exploration which ``is moving toward human flights to Mars,'' notes Louis Friedman, executive director of the Planetary Society. That, he says, ``is probably where space flight is taking us.''

``Humans to Mars: Why not?,'' NASA Administrator James M. Beggs asks rhetorically. Both he and Dr. Friedman reflect a renewed interest in this often dreamed-of adventure. Time right to consider trip

Neither they nor many other specialists suggest that spaceflight has reached a stage where planners could lay out such an expedition today. But they explain that the time is ripe to consider seriously a long-term commitment to manned Mars exploration -- preferably as an international enterprise. Setting this as a goal would strongly influence what the US, the Soviet Union, and other interested nations do in space over the next two decades.

If such nations were serious about going to Mars early in the next century, they would have to consider the steps needed to get there. There are major questions of human health, life support, and engineering design to be answered before undertaking what would be a 2- to 3-year mission. This means planning the design and activities of such facilities as the US space station so as to get the needed answers.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) expects to have that station on orbit by 1992. So the design work is going on now. Likewise, planetologists need to know more about Mars and its space environment before they can help lay out a program for human exploration. As Dr. Friedman notes, the Soviet Phobos mission is just the sort of reconnaissance needed.


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