Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

What It Will Take to Put Humans on Mars ; Presidential Panel Recommends a Major Retooling of the Agency, Stressing More Private-Sector Involvement and Cheaper Rockets

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

What It Will Take to Put Humans on Mars ; Presidential Panel Recommends a Major Retooling of the Agency, Stressing More Private-Sector Involvement and Cheaper Rockets

Article excerpt

Since the dawn of the space age a half-century ago, each generation has witnessed tragedy in the US spaceflight program. Each tragedy has prompted calls for reform in NASA and a renewed sense of direction for America's space program.

Now a presidential commission is recommending the largest overhaul in the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's history in the wake of the Columbia tragedy 18 months ago. The aim is to retool the agency to meet President Bush's goal of returning humans to the moon as early as 2015 as a steppingstone to exploration of Mars and other destinations in the solar system.

Yet even as analysts applaud the ambition of the effort, they note that reorganizing government agencies is just one piece that has to be assembled to move human exploration beyond Earth's orbit. From the nuts-and-bolts of cheaper, more reliable rockets to the intangible of sustained congressional support, other obstacles will have to be overcome if the vision Mr. Bush outlined in January is to succeed. This is to say nothing of whether Americans themselves want to spend the money to journey deeper into the cosmos at a time of war and a still-mending economy.

"NASA needs a focused mission and the president gave it a focused mission," says Roger Launius, a space historian now at the Smithsonian Institution's Air and Space Museum in Washington. "The challenge is that, as a people, Americans haven't really resolved the question of whether or not we want to do this. Support for the space program is very broad, but it's not very deep."

Among the commission's proposals, a leaner NASA would focus on cutting-edge R&D. It recommends:

* Contracting a broader range of activities to the private sector, including unmanned launches to low-Earth orbit.

* Operating its research facilities more along the lines of national laboratories rather than as internal fiefdoms with overlapping duties and constant turf battles.

* Reestablishing a White House level council that would coordinate efforts among agencies and provide what the panel calls a "useful prod for NASA to keep its house in order."

* Urging Congress to award significant amounts of money to people or companies that developed major "enabling" technologies or reach new milestones in civilian spaceflight.

This notion was inspired in part by the X Prize, a $10 million purse for the first nongovernmental group that builds a rocket that can safely carry humans into space and back twice in a two-week period. Noted US aircraft designer Burt Rutan is slated to send his entry into space on a test flight on Monday.

Indeed, developing cheaper, more reliable, and safer rockets to launch humans into low-Earth orbit is at the top of the list of technologies needed, notes Howard McCurdy, professor of public administration at American University in Washington. …

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