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Russians Help NASA Plan for Manned Mars mission
UPI column by James Oberg, Feb, 2000

In January 2000, the National Aeronautics and Space Adminstration quietly concluded a three day seminar with Russian space experts to discuss how to find better ways to send humans to Mars.

This meeting came at a time of space setbacks. The biggest two recent disappointments had been the loss of NASA's robot Mars probes and the incessant delays in the Russian contributions to the International Space Station. Space officials were 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, old friends of mine told me that seven senior Russian space experts had 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 of the attendees told me privately. "We showed them charts with summaries of all of our own results, too", added another NASA expert. "But only after we printed new copies with the 'Official Use Only' restrictions removed."

Funding for this meeting was provided as part of US support of the International Science and Technology Corporation, a Moscow-based organization founded in 1992. 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 US, the European Union, Japan, and a number of corporations. In its first seven years of operations, it has dispersed $230 million to 24,000 individuals in former Soviet countries, to work on almost 1000 specific projects.

The humans-to-Mars meeting involved "Project 1172", entitled "Preliminary Project for Exploring Mars". The project was approved early in 1999, and was funded from a State Department budget set aside for US pledges to the non-proliferation program. A preliminary planning meeting was held in Paris in mid-1999.

The January 2000 meeting 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."

But he reported he was unable to provide further details because the activity was sponsored by NASA Headquarters in Washington. "Houston is just being the host", he told me.

The responsible official from NASA headquarters who coordinated the meeting was Mr. John Mankins, the Manager of Advanced Concepts Studies. He explained that the purpose of the meeting was for the Russians to report on their progress in conducting the 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."

There was nothing restricted about this material, he assured me. "If you've been to any space conference in the last six months," he continued, "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 human flight to Mars. A "Mars Reference Mission" report detailed different mission strategies and described the currently preferred "baseline" approach. NASA's "Human Spaceflight" internet page has links to information on these results.

"Right now, there are no official NASA projects to send people to Mars," stressed Humphries. "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 generally on the same level as the International Space Station, which is expending more than $2 billion per year.

As examples of the NASA's current interests related to human flight to Mars, Humphries pointed to advances in propulsion, in space habitat design, and in methods to use local martian resources.

Once completed, the Russian report is expected to supplement these NASA studies. The study results will be delivered to space agencies in the countries which provided the financial support, primarily the United States and France.

Although Russia never sent cosmonauts to the Moon, it conducted extensive studies of manned lunar and interplanetary flight. In the 1970s, Russian space experts developed a project called "Aelita" for a manned Mars expedition, and many of those old results are being dusted off and updated. "They are also doing a lot of new original studies," Mankin told me.

"I must say", he continued, "they are doing a wonderful job."

These meetings have no significance for any potential international partnership for such a future project, Mankin stressed. "There is no exchange of funds, and no focussed NASA activities related to such a project," he told me. NASA's only role was as a participant on the study project's steering committee.


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