NASA visionaries set their sights on the moon and Mars. Step-by-step plans could lead to outposts in space
There's plenty of enthusiasm for the recent National Commission on Space report here at the Johnson Space Center (JSC). The document's recipe for ``Pioneering the Space Frontier'' is just the ticket for the lead center in the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's space-station project.Skip to next paragraph
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Many employees here remember commission chairman Thomas O. Paine when he headed NASA some 16 years ago. The report's cover scene -- where leaping, waving Mars explorers bid farewell to an Earth-bound spaceship -- is the sort of vision with which he tried unsuccessfully to inspire the United States back then. The commission hopes the country will be more receptive today.
But what sparks the most interest here is the report's step-by-step plan to build the next stage of spaceflight infrastructure. The cheap Earth-to-orbit transportation, orbital stations, space tugs, and other elements of that infrastructure are things NASA planners think the country ought to have anyway.
Once in place, this infrastructure would allow the US to develop orbital industries, build a moon base, mine asteroids, join other nations in exploring Mars, or do whatever else it may desire in space 25 to 50 years hence.
JSC director Jesse W. Moore says: ``I certainly think Tom Paine's report paints a good set of thrusts for us. It talks about some of the exciting things the nation ought to embark upon in the future. . . . I think the space station is a fundamental element of the overall Paine report.''
NASA's current space-station concept fits the report scenario well. Carl Shelley, space-station manager for customer service, says that, were NASA told to aim its long-term planning at Mars, ``I don't think we'd do anything different today'' with the station. It's already designed so it could act as a staging area for future moon missions. It could also act as a construction base for building a Mars ship, whose size probably would dwarf the station itself.
Also, Mr. Shelley notes that the space tugs that the report recommends are already specified as important space-station equipment. These orbital maneuvering vehicles (OMVs), as NASA calls them, would move satellites around in orbit. They would ferry astronauts or equipment between the station and other points. They might go as far as the moon. An OMV of some kind is needed just to allow crews to service the free-flying unmanned platforms that will accompany the station.
There is, in fact, rather wide agreement among experts with the thrust of many of the Paine report's shorter-term points and recommendations.
For example, the report says that Earth-to-orbit transport costs must be cut substantially to make space development worthwhile. It urges stepped up efforts to develop cheaper rockets and manned vehicles.
Space analyst John Logsdon of George Washington University agrees, saying: ``The key to all of this [space development] is reliable and cheap transportation.
``We have stopped investing, on the civilian side, in the technology base for unmanned systems -- rocket engines, materials, fuels, and the like,'' he adds.
Joseph Loftus, assistant to the director for planning at JSC, explains that the point of research on President Reagan's ``Orient Express'' aerospace plane, which the Paine report urges, is to develop this kind of knowledge base. He says that the studies of materials, structures, fuels, and other technical factors involved with the plane and with advanced rockets have to be done over the next decade ``so that, in 1995, we can begin the replacement of the shuttle.''