Thursday, September 10, 2009

Manned Mars mission in doubt

A long awaited report into the future of NASA will, much as expected, throw a giant spanner into the works, concluding that the agency has nowhere near enough money to even get to the Moon, let alone Mars. Though the full report is still to be released, a summary sent to the White House last week makes for gloomy reading, suggesting that NASA will not be able to break earth orbit for the next 20 years if present expenditure levels are maintained. However, the report also sounds for the first time as if some real level headed thinking is taking place. NASA has see-sawed from one goal to another since the Moon landings, but never really had a long term strategy, so there is hope that the proposals outlined will give the agency some much needed focus. The report proposes a number of scenarios, including the idea that astronauts would travel to Mars but not actually land. This is not quite as crazy as it sounds, since the idea would be to use the orbiting astronauts to control robotic landers and rovers. The time lag between Earth and Mars is such that live remote control of probes is impossible, but having astronauts on hand, combined with cutting edge rovers, would be a potent combination. Not as romantic as a manned landing perhaps, but should such a mission provide compelling evidence for life, then the pressure for human footprints on the surface might well become overwhelming.