At 40, NASA Still Dreams

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The space agency would put a man on Mars, but Congress is wary of such lofty goals.

The word from the man who runs America's space program: "It's okay to dream again." NASA Administrator Daniel S. Goldin has charted an ambitious course for the next quarter-century and beyond, from a manned mission to Mars to probes of distant stars. But it remains an open question whether the nation has the will -- and the wealth -- to make those dreams come true.

Certainly the agency's first four decades -- encompassing the glory of the Apollo moon landings and the tragedy of the Challenger disaster -- had all the stomach-churning drama of a Saturn 5 rocket launch. "We went to the moon ... and we stopped," says Goldin, interviewed on the occasion of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's 40th anniversary. "NASA went into a `survival mode.' We had this incredible organization put together, but we didn't have a vision. So we became civil servants." House Speaker Newt Gingrich put it more bluntly during hearings this fall, suggesting that NASA's goal seemed to be "making space as boring as possible."

For Goldin, however, the key to success is setting goals, then achieving them. When members of the successful Mars Pathfinder team proposed a repeat mission, Goldin became upset. "We shouldn't be feeling good.... We've got to push the boundaries."

And so, to the astonishment of the NASA staff, Goldin has revived talk about a manned mission to Mars and other ambitious projects, recently announcing a proposal for an interstellar probe. "Initially, their jaws dropped down to the floor," he chuckles, "but afterwards they loved it."

NASA's ultimate goal: quite simply, to discover the origins of life and the universe. "We're trying to understand the origin, development and destiny of planetary bodies, stars, solar systems, galaxies ..." says Goldin.

The search is not merely one of scientific curiosity, however. "This is a subject that every human being looking at the night sky has wondered about," Goldin says. "We need to do these things because, in the process of answering these tough questions ... we develop technology that's beyond belief, to help the future of this country."

Not everyone buys into Goldin's vision. "Dan Goldin correctly sought to put the long-term focus on sending humans to Mars," says John Pike, director of the space-policy project at the Federation of American Scientists and a longtime NASA-watcher. Still, he doubts that will happen anytime soon. "We're no closer to getting people to Mars than when I was in high school." NASA also proposed the idea during the Bush administration. "Then Congress went into sticker shock, and there was the `giggle factor,' and so it basically petered out," says Pike.

While the administration's space policy lists no specific goals beyond constructing the international space station, "sending humans to Mars is clearly an option," says NASA spokesman Douglas Isbell. In fact, Congress added $20 million to a robotics mission to Mars in 2001, a precursor to manned missions.

Meanwhile, while the Census Bureau gears up for the 2000 tally of Americans here on Earth, NASA is planning an even more monumental task: a planetary head count. Within the next 15 years, NASA hopes to complete the first census of our solar system, counting not only planets but also the number of asteroids and comets. Later, NASA plans to land on what it believes are the most "scientifically critical" bodies, from the planet Pluto to the moons of Jupiter. Scientists are developing an "aquabot" for the mission to the Jovian moon Europa that will be able to melt through miles of ice covering the moon.

Simultaneously, NASA plans to search for planets circling around stars within 100 light years, or 600 trillion miles, of Earth. Scientists believe that that may encompass as many as 10,000 stars, some of which could contain the basis for life. …