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NASA visionaries set their sights on the moon and Mars. Step-by-step plans could lead to outposts in space

There's plenty of enthusiasm for the recent National Commission on Space report here at the Johnson Space Center (JSC). The document's recipe for ``Pioneering the Space Frontier'' is just the ticket for the lead center in the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's space-station project.

Many employees here remember commission chairman Thomas O. Paine when he headed NASA some 16 years ago. The report's cover scene -- where leaping, waving Mars explorers bid farewell to an Earth-bound spaceship -- is the sort of vision with which he tried unsuccessfully to inspire the United States back then. The commission hopes the country will be more receptive today.

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But what sparks the most interest here is the report's step-by-step plan to build the next stage of spaceflight infrastructure. The cheap Earth-to-orbit transportation, orbital stations, space tugs, and other elements of that infrastructure are things NASA planners think the country ought to have anyway.

Once in place, this infrastructure would allow the US to develop orbital industries, build a moon base, mine asteroids, join other nations in exploring Mars, or do whatever else it may desire in space 25 to 50 years hence.

JSC director Jesse W. Moore says: ``I certainly think Tom Paine's report paints a good set of thrusts for us. It talks about some of the exciting things the nation ought to embark upon in the future. . . . I think the space station is a fundamental element of the overall Paine report.''

NASA's current space-station concept fits the report scenario well. Carl Shelley, space-station manager for customer service, says that, were NASA told to aim its long-term planning at Mars, ``I don't think we'd do anything different today'' with the station. It's already designed so it could act as a staging area for future moon missions. It could also act as a construction base for building a Mars ship, whose size probably would dwarf the station itself.

Also, Mr. Shelley notes that the space tugs that the report recommends are already specified as important space-station equipment. These orbital maneuvering vehicles (OMVs), as NASA calls them, would move satellites around in orbit. They would ferry astronauts or equipment between the station and other points. They might go as far as the moon. An OMV of some kind is needed just to allow crews to service the free-flying unmanned platforms that will accompany the station.

There is, in fact, rather wide agreement among experts with the thrust of many of the Paine report's shorter-term points and recommendations.

For example, the report says that Earth-to-orbit transport costs must be cut substantially to make space development worthwhile. It urges stepped up efforts to develop cheaper rockets and manned vehicles.

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Space analyst John Logsdon of George Washington University agrees, saying: ``The key to all of this [space development] is reliable and cheap transportation.

``We have stopped investing, on the civilian side, in the technology base for unmanned systems -- rocket engines, materials, fuels, and the like,'' he adds.

Joseph Loftus, assistant to the director for planning at JSC, explains that the point of research on President Reagan's ``Orient Express'' aerospace plane, which the Paine report urges, is to develop this kind of knowledge base. He says that the studies of materials, structures, fuels, and other technical factors involved with the plane and with advanced rockets have to be done over the next decade ``so that, in 1995, we can begin the replacement of the shuttle.''

That's when the country will be deciding whether to actually develop a space vehicle that can take off and land like an airplane, go with some other rocket-powered system, or do both.

It would cost only a few hundred million dollars over the next decade to gain knowledge to help make decisions on billions of dollars worth of development, Mr. Loftus says.

He adds that what probably will be needed by the year 2000 is an unmanned system for orbiting bulk payloads -- 200,000 to 400,000 pounds -- very cheaply, plus a manned vehicle less costly to operate than the present shuttle. This is the kind of capability the new Soviet space-shuttle system seems to be aimed at developing.

It is not known how cheap the Soviet system will be to operate. But, to judge from what is known publicly, it includes a small lightweight space plane that would carry two or three cosmonauts.

A larger manned orbiter about the size of the US shuttle may begin atmospheric flight tests this year.

There's also an unmanned version that could orbit about 200,000 pounds of cargo. These craft, presumably, could be used in conjunction with the Mir permanently manned space station as it is developed and enlarged.

If building an orbital infrastructure makes so much sense in its own right, why talk about 21st-century moon mines and Mars bases?

Paine argues that such long-range vision helps keep current planning on a more fruitful track. He notes that ``the high likelihood of permanently occupying Luna and Mars in the next century suggests that resources should not be expended on one-shot `Apollo'-type manned expeditions.'' He urges that near-Earth space development be open-ended. It would be wasteful, he says, to put up an orbital infrastructure that our grandchildren would have to scrap and replace when they wanted to move farther out in space.

Professor Logsdon points out that, while such vision can be a useful guide, it's difficult to incorporate it in formal national policy.

``Politicians are accountable for what they're doing now. They can't commit to long-range goals except in general terms,'' he explains.

Soviet officials seem more comfortable discussing their space program as a stairway to the planets than do US presidents. Yet, Logsdon notes, ``Even the Soviets do it only in general terms. You don't see a [public] report like this with detailed timetables and cost estimates.''

Meanwhile, the Soviet space program has already gone a long way toward fulfilling a prophecy made by the congressional Office of Technology Assessment three years ago: ``If they succeed in bringing all these plans to fruition [permanent space station, operational shuttle, lightweight space plane], the Soviets will have acquired a very capable space infrastructure which could be used, not only for operations in orbit, but also as an important element in the conduct of expeditions, with or without people, to the moon and the planets.''

That sounds like a scenario right out of the Paine report.

The difference is that the Americans are still talking about it; the Soviets are doing it.

Eighth of 10 articles. Next: An embattled NASA.