Russians, NASA Meet Secretly to Plan Manned Mars Missions
United Press International
Administration quietly concluded a three-day seminar with Russian space experts Friday, to discuss better ways to send humans to Mars.
The meeting comes at a time of setbacks for space exploration. The recent disappointments have been NASA's loss of the robot Mars probes and the incessant delays in Russian contributions to the International Space Station. Space officials are now assessing bitter new lessons about failures in management and diplomacy.
The timing of the meeting struck at least one NASA worker as ironic. "Mars probes and earth politics?" he quipped. "It's the worst of both worlds."
Although no public statements were released by NASA about this private meeting, UPI has learned that seven senior Russian space scientists met with experts from several NASA centers.
The senior Russian representative was Leonid Gorshkov of the Energia Space and Rocket Company in Moscow. Experts from the Keldysh Institute, which specializes in interplanetary navigation, and the Institute of Biomedical Problems, which studies the medical hazards of space flight, also took part.
"They told us how they would pursue the manned exploration of Mars," one attendee told UPI.
"We showed them charts with summaries of all of our own results," said another NASA expert. "But only after we printed new copies with the 'Official Use Only' restrictions removed."
The meeting was funded by the International Science and Technology Corporation, a Moscow-based organization founded in 1992, which is partly supported by the United States. According to its Web site, "The Center provides weapons scientists from former Soviet countries with opportunities for redirecting their scientific talents to peaceful science." Its motto is: "Nonproliferation Through Science Cooperation."
The center is financed through credits and contributions from the United States, the European Union, Japan and a number of corporations. In its seven years of operations, it has dispersed $230 million to 24, 000 individuals in former Soviet countries. They work on almost 1,000 specific projects.
Last week's meeting involved "Project 1172," entitled "Preliminary Project for Exploring Mars." Approved in early 1999, the project was funded through State Department money set aside for U.S. pledges to the non-proliferation program. A preliminary planning meeting was held in Paris in mid-1999.
This week's meeting, which ended Friday, was the second review meeting. It was hosted by NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. For privacy, the attendees used a conference facility at the nearby "Space Center Houston" museum and visitor center.
Kelly Humphries, a spokesman for NASA's Houston center, described the "invitation only" meeting as a "strict scientific exchange." He added that it was "an everyday exchange between two groups looking at the same stuff."
The manager of advanced concepts studies at NASA headquarters, John Mankins, coordinated the event. He said the meeting served to determine the progress former Soviet scientists had made in their assigned studies.
"NASA's primary role is to participate on the steering committee," Mankins said. "NASA also gave a number of presentations, which summarized its own recent studies on human interplanetary flight."
Mankins denied that the meeting was restricted. "If you've been to any space conference in the last six months," he said, "you've seen the same charts."
The Advanced Development Office at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston has conducted a number of studies in recent years about a manned mission to Mars. A "Mars Reference Mission" report detailed different mission strategies and described the currently preferred "baseline" approach. NASA's Human Spaceflight Web page has links to information on these results.
"Right now, there are no official NASA projects to send people to Mars,"
Humphries said. "The bulk of the ongoing work in this area is to identify, develop and review the technologies to do the mission."
Depending on political decisions, most space experts believe a human expedition to Mars is at least 15 years away. Cost estimates vary widely, but are on the same level as the International Space Station, which is spending more than $2 billion a year on the project.
As examples of the NASA's current interests in manned missions to Mars, Humphries pointed to advances in propulsion, space habitat design and methods to use Martian resources.
Once completed, the Russian report is expected to supplement the NASA studies. The results will be delivered to space agencies in countries that provided financial support for the program, primarily the United States and France.
Although the Soviet Union never sent cosmonauts to the Moon, it conducted extensive studies of manned lunar and interplanetary flights. In the 1970s, Russian space experts developed "Aelita," a project that called for a manned Mars expedition. Many of those old results are being updated. "They are also doing a lot of new original studies," Mankin said.
"I must say", he said, "they are doing a wonderful job."
A third and final meeting will be held in Moscow this summer, Mankins said. These meetings have no significance for any potential international partnership for such future projects, he said.
"There is no exchange of funds and no focused NASA activities related to
such a project."
NASA's only role is as a participant on the study project's steering committee, he said.
Copyright 2000 by United Press International.
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