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War and Columbia Disaster Overshadow Bush Family Dream of a Manned Mission to Mars

YOWUSA.COM, 14-February-03
Steve Russell

War and Columbia Disaster Overshadow Bush Family Dream of a Manned Mission to MarsIn 1989, President George Bush first laid the groundwork for a manned mission to Mars with his Space Exploration Initiative.  The initiative focused on the use of nuclear propulsion because it can reduce the time needed to reach Mars by one third that of conventional chemical propulsion systems. 

Regrettably, this bold initiative was soon overshadowed by Iraq's invasion of Kuwait on August 2, 1990.  And then, In the subsequent administration of former President Bill Clinton, the vision of a manned mission to Mars was forced off the radar scope with drastic cuts in NASA's annual budgets.

Preparing For the Mission

Shuttle LaunchUpon taking office, President George W. Bush picked up the mantle from his father for a manned mission to Mars, and in a quirky repeat of history, is now being overshadowed by the recent Columbia shuttle disaster as war looms in the Middle East.  At this pace, will we ever get to Mars?  Or more specifically, will the Bush dynasty abandon this bold and noble cause? 

The current Bush administration seems to have realised that NASA is currently ill-prepared to take on a manned mission to Mars.  The activities of NASA over the last few years are indicative of a conscious endeavour towards reaching this goal. Some of the critical factors NASA has been addressing are accounting, workforce skills, research and development. 

Fix the Books

Sean O'KeefeWhen Bush decided to elect a replacement for previous NASA administrator Dan Goldin two years ago, he did so with a plan in mind. This plan was to fix the accounting problems within NASA that would seriously hinder any grand future plan Bush was contemplating.  To achieve this goal he chose Sean O'Keefe, a budget and administration specialist previously holding the number two job at the White House Office of Management and Budget.  O'Keefe has been continuously working to resolve the issue.

Government Executive Magazine, March 20, 2002
NASA chief seeks to remedy accounting woes

NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe is moving aggressively to straighten out NASA's books and has hired a staffer dedicated solely to focusing on the agency's mismanaged finances, NASA officials told House lawmakers Wednesday.

This has a been a momentous task as NASA has been on the General Accounting Office's high risk list since 1990, and in 1999 a $644 million dollar error was somehow missed by both agencies.  Two years ago, Subcommittee chairman Stephen Horn, R-California was questioning the validity of NASA's previous audits conducted by Arthur Andersen. With Arthur Andersen being found guilty last year for obstruction of justice in the Enron case, his concerns were obviously valid.

O'Keefe has been extremely keen in putting all these financial troubles behind them and moving forward by setting a target completion date of June 2003.

If NASA's budget is ever going to be significantly increased to fund such a mission, critics will certainly attack accounting irregularities so as to stall the effort to death.  This move was absolutely critical in lying the foundation for a substantial increase in NASA's funding for a manned mission to Mars.

The second largest problem he is also addressing is workforce skills.

Get the Skills

Over the years, a growing trend has formed within both NASA and the federal government causing a critical loss in workplace skills.  The failure to implement a successful recruitment program has left approximately one third of the NASA workforce eligible to retire within the next five years.  Only a few years ago the General Accounting Office noted that NASA had twice as many workers older than 60 years of age than it had younger than 30 years of age.

In a recent interview with Keith Cowing, O'Keefe responded to these facts

Spaceref.com, January 30, 2003
Sean O'Keefe: 9 Questions (Part 2)

This winter and spring will see evidence of agency-wide coordination of recruiting - and next fall a very concerted campaign to actively enlist future graduating classes of engineers, scientists and management professionals to our ranks.

While the accounting and workforce skills issues are only recently being addressed, the research towards a manned Mars mission has been underway for quite some time and is still continuing strongly.

Do the Research

Manned Mission to MarsIt was only several months ago that NASA commissioned the National Research Council to identify the data needed for a manned mission to Mars.  Meanwhile, the preparatory plans for the mission have already been underway since 2000 and will include prototype Mars bases in the Canadian Arctic, American southwest, Australian outback, and Iceland.

Mars Desert Research Station
Project Goals

The Stations will serve as an effective testbed for field operations studies in preparation for human missions to Mars specifically. They will help develop and allow tests of key habitat design features, field exploration strategies, tools, technologies, and crew selection protocols, that will enable and help optimize the productive exploration of Mars by humans. In order to achieve this, each Station must be a realistic and adaptable habitat.

While we have humans on Earth practising for this mission, we have also had robots on Mars gathering the data needed such as the location of water for our survival.

No matter how much preparation and research NASA completes for the mission, if we do not have a suitable method of actually transporting ourselves to Mars, it will all be for naught.

Build the Transportation

George Bush Sr. realised in 1989 that nuclear propulsion technology was the only sure, safe and economical way of landing humans on Mars.

Federation of American Scientists
Space Exploration Initiative

Space Exploration InitiativeRenewed interest in nuclear thermal propulsion was sparked by President George Bush. On 29 July 1989, the twentieth anniversary of the Apollo moon landing, President Bush delivered a speech which marked the beginning of the Space Exploration Initiative.

The decision to use this nuclear technology for a mission to Mars was essentially approved last year with the progression of the Nuclear Systems Initiative (NSI).

Space.com, February 5, 2002
NASA To Go Nuclear; Spaceflight Initiative

In Monday's budget briefing in Washington, D.C., new NASA chief, Sean O'Keefe, declared that the space agency was ready to battle a "distance and time dilemma" that now inhibits the organization's exploration and discovery agenda for the 21st century.

Only days before the Columbia disaster, O'Keefe reportedly told the Los Angeles Times that this technology would be getting a new lease of life.  The budget confirmed the story.

Spaceref.com, February 2003
NASA Budget

To develop and demonstrate new power and propulsion technologies to overcome these limitations, the President's Budget proposes $279 million; ($3 billion over five years) for Project Prometheus, which builds on the Nuclear Systems Initiative started last year.

While some will undoubtedly oppose this nuclear option, the reality is that it will dramatically reduce the volume of food, fuel and oxygen required for such a mission.  It will also allow for extended launch windows and more options for return strategies.

In order to build the required transportation and implement the mission plan, we are going to need international support. Thankfully, acquiring this support should not be a problem.

International Cooperation

Over the last few years, Russian officials have been publicly pushing a manned Mars mission in the hope that it will influence NASA into climbing on board.

Russia Plans To Put A Cosmonaut On Mars By 2020

Russia is ready to send human beings to Mars, and will begin detailed planning to do so.

"Our engineers believe we can do this by 2020 and, from a medical point of view, there are no big hurdles left to hinder such a mission," Professor Grigoriev said.  "Russia can offer a complete medical support system for a mission to Mars.  This is recognized not just here but also in Houston."

The European Space Agency has already expressed interest in Mars and is developing several robotic missions to gather more science in preparation for a manned mission.  With other countries like China and India rapidly adventuring into space, when it comes time to seriously implementing a manned Mars mission, NASA will not be short of willing participants.

The Times Of India, January 4, 2003
India plans mission to moon by 2015

BANGALORE: India plans to send a manned mission to the moon sometime between 2005 and 2015, a senior space research official said on Saturday.

The global trend towards support for a manned mission is an encouraging sign. Especially since local sentiments among many Americans towards a manned mission appears to be growing impatient as exemplified by Keith Cowing from Spaceref.com.

Spaceref.com, May 12, 2002
Let's Stop Going in Circles - And Go Somewhere

The International Space Station doesn't go anywhere.  Instead, it simply goes in circles - day in and day out.  Much the same can be said for America's space policy - or lack thereof.

We need to go somewhere for a change.  We can't sit at home - or drive around the block - and call ourselves "explorers".

With global cooperation abundantly available, and all background research and preparations already underway, the fact was we had the beginnings of a strategy that was progressively unfolding into a clear way forward towards our future.  The only thing lacking has been the political announcement and fanfare that goes with landing humans on another planetary body.

The Future Was Almost Clear

Previously, NASA's strategy seemed to be portrayed as cute pictures in a volatile sandpit that was periodically lost under the footprints of child-like politicians.  It certainly was not the best place to be drawing up such a strategy, but it was all they had to work with.  Then last year NASA's sense of direction and maturity progressed and they transferred their plans onto the more substantial medium of paper for the literate to study.

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