A new plan to explore the solar system is found to be doable.

An artist rendering of a crew exploring Mars’ surface with new, as yet undeveloped and unfunded, vehicles and space suits. Photo: NASA/Pat Rawlings of SAIC.

Mars, the red planet, has captivated mankind throughout history; it is an orb that, next to the moon and Venus, is Earths closest celestial neighbor. But close is relative; setting foot on the craggy ground of a planet that sits millions of miles away and has wild fluctuations in temperatures is the stuff of science fiction and of fantasy.

It may also be a mission that is thoroughly achievable, according to a Presidential commission on the future of the country's space program.

In January, President Bush released his vision for the future of space program. It was a vision of returning to the moon, and from there launching the human race into the galaxy with human and robotic missions. The President created the Commission on Implementation of United States Space Exploration Policy and gave it 180 days to come up with a plan that would "give NASA a new focus and vision for future exploration," the President said Jan. 14. "We will build new ships to carry man forward into the universe, to gain a new foothold on the moon to prepare for new journeys to worlds beyond our own."

In mid-June that nine-member commission, released a report that found that the President's vision was an ambitious plan that is fraught with potential failure and risk, but that it is doable and should be done. It is hoped that the mission will inspire young people to enter technical fields, as well as add jobs and improve the competitiveness of the U.S. industrial base. "This journey of exploration will sustain vital national objectives here on Earth," said E.C. Aldridge Jr., chairman of the commission.

A new vision

The plan would reinvent the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). It would place the private sector at the forefront of a new space industry, and promote an industry that would seek to find profit in space. New technologies would need to be created, and the agency would be required to look to private industry, both in the United States and abroad, and within the current space-related industry and from unrelated fields. Prizes in the millions, even hundreds of millions, would be offered to encourage companies to enter the field.

The broad plan, which purposefully does not try to lay out the nuts and bolts of accomplishing the overarching goals, would use what Sean O'Keefe, NASA's administrator, called a building block strategy. The plan would build on a progressively complex series of missions. Each builds on the shoulders of its predecessor "with measurable milestones" and each is "executed on the basis of available resources, accumulated experience and technology readiness, according to the report.

The evolutionary aspect of this plan would begin with returning the space shuttle to flight and completing the International Space Station (ISS). After the ISS is complete, the shuttle would be phased out, in about 2010, and new ships would take its place. Next, robotic orbiters and later manned expeditions would be sent to the moon as early as 2015, but no later than 2020, and robotic missions to Mars in preparation for a future human expedition would follow.

Emphasizing pragmatic reasons for expanding the space operations, the report says that this plan would create a space industry that does not exist now. "Over the next several decades-if the exploration vision is implemented to encourage this-an entirely new set of businesses can emerge that will seek profit in space."

NASA's role, while still the lead agency and guiding force behind future space missions, would be limited to only those areas where there is "irrefutable demonstration that only government can perform the proposed activity," such as launching human crews. This requires, "extraordinary care and will likely remain the providence of the government for at least the near-term," according to the report.

The commission envisions that private industry "most immediately" can offer technology for the initial boost in low-Earth orbit for the payloads associated with the vision. The Commission believes that NASA should procure all of its low-Earth orbit launch services competitively on the commercial market. In fact, on June 21, a private company, Scaled Composites, accomplished this feat.

Enabling technologies

To accomplish these goals, a number of enabling technologies must be built and built within reasonable schedules and affordable costs. The list of potential technologies is long and evolving, and while, for the most part, not prioritized, a heavy-lift capability is at the top of the list.

According to the report, since the Apollo program and the last launch of a Saturn V, the United States has relied on the Space Shuttle for placing large payloads of roughly 55,000 pounds into low-Earth orbit. Saturn V carried a far greater payload, approximately 250,000 pounds to low-Earth orbit. Newly developed vehicles, called the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles (EELV) will soon come on-line with a capacity of lifting up to 50,000 pounds into low-Earth orbit or 30,000 pounds into geosynchronous transfer orbit.

Neither the shuttle's nor the EELV's lift capability is sufficient in the long term and additional capabilities must be developed. Before that can happen, interim technologies must be created ranging from hydrocarbon and hydrogen propellant engine development to advanced sensors for structural and environmental monitoring.

"Heavy-lift capability is a critical enabling technology for mission accomplishment and a plan for achieving this capability needs to be developed now," the report says.

A new way

NASA, which has already undergone much restructuring as a result of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board's report, would undergo further changes. Current NASA centers such as the Kennedy Space Center in Florida and the Langley Research Center in Virginia would be reconfigured as Federally Funded Research and Development Centers.

In addition, three new NASA organizations would be formed. These include a technical advisory board for independent advice on technology and risk mitigation plans; a cost estimating organization to ensure cost realism and accuracy; and a research and technology organization that sponsors high risk/high payoff technology advancement while tolerating periodic failures.

Finally, the Commission suggests that NASA's management practices be built around three core concepts: system-of-systems architecture; lead systems integrator procurement; and spiral, evolutionary development.

"Technology developed, problems solved and scientific discoveries made in the initial spirals must all be sequenced to support subsequent work," the report says. "America will not set out immediately to Mars. The capability to do so will emerge in time, only as part of a planned series of interrelated discoveries and accomplishments."