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On to Mars! International project whose time has come

OBSERVERS who watched the dawn of the space age three decades ago have a sense of d'ej`a vu these days. ``We're living in a time very similar to [that] around 1960 or '61,'' says Brian O'Leary, an author-lecturer and former astronaut. ``Both countries [the United States and the Soviet Union] were starting manned space programs. But John F. Kennedy had the vision....'' As for a lunar landing by 1969, ``nobody dreamed or realized that would be possible, prior to 1961.'' He adds, ``I truly believe ... that we have the technological capability - just like we had [for moon missions] in the '60s when the Apollo program was formulated - to pull off a manned mission to Mars.''

In short, going to Mars - probably with the Soviet Union and other nations - is a prospect whose time has come.

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Certainly, there was little doubt of this among participants in ``The Case for Mars III'' conference held last week at the University of Colorado in Boulder. There was little doubt of it, either, among the several dozen American and Soviet experts who discussed Mars exploration in the Planetary Society's four-hour ``Spacebridge'' teleconference between Moscow and Boulder preceding the conference.

There was another similarity with the the late '50s evident in Boulder.

In the years before Soviet engineers launched the world's first artificial satellite - Sputnik 1 - in October 1957, space activity was unpopular with the Eisenhower administration. It smacked of boondoggle at a time of fiscal restraint. So, publicly, government officials talked about it ``unofficially'' if at all. Space enthusiasts in industry and universities held privately sponsored meetings. The need for action in the face of Soviet space achievement changed that official attitude overnight.

The Reagan administration - and administrations throughout the 1970s - have likewise frowned on official talk of Mars exploration. Thus, the students and planetary experts who organized the two previous ``Case for Mars'' conferences called themselves the ``Mars Underground.'' This time, however, the neckties and business suits of top NASA officials mingled with the blue jeans and sport shirts of conference veterans. Indeed, NASA helped sponsor the meeting.

The Mars Underground has moved above ground. The perception that the United States space program needs direction has spread widely through Washington. And Mars exploration is high on the list of possible leadership goals.

``There is, I think, a growing thought that ... there is needed in this country a more singular driving thrust to establish a clear role of [space] leadership,'' Philip Culbertson, NASA associate administrator for policy and planning, told the conference. ``It is our intent to develop the technology and the systems to move men and women beyond the confines of Earth,'' he said. ``National interest in Mars exploration is growing at an ever-increasing rate,'' observed NASA administrator James C. Fletcher. He added, ``I firmly believe that we should go to Mars. And I am confident we will go.''

It won't be easy for men and women to journey to the Red Planet, live there for a month or more, and return safely to Earth. Effects of prolonged weightlessness during the journey and of living in the harsh martian environment must be throughly studied. New, heavy-lift rockets and other space transport must be developed along with more sophisticated automated techniques for navigation and control. The psychological and social challenge of small crews living together for extended periods must be understood and met. Mars itself must be more extensively studied by robots.

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These and other needs are already on the agendas of the United States and Soviet space programs. The Soviets, especially, have major projects under way.

In this connection, there is a significant difference between now and the 1960s. The United States no longer views the Soviet Union solely as a space competitor. It sees an opportunity for collaboration, even partnership. Space experts and many politicians in both countries appear to realize that their space programs have much to contribute to each other's program for a venture of the magnitude of Mars exploration.

No one knows exactly when an expedition might embark. Estimates tend to cluster around the year 2005 or thereabouts. Whatever the eventual date, it is evident that the crew members have already been born and are probably in the 17-to-27-year age range.

Humanity is preparing to cross the space frontier. And as the realization of this spreads through human thinking, our concept of ourselves as an earthbound species will be shattered forever.

A Tuesday column. Robert C. Cowen is the Monitor's natural science editor.