Star Points for February, 2004; by Curtis Roelle
Mars: The Dream is Alive - Again

Here's what has happened since last month's column appeared: (1) Two new U.S. landers, Spirit and Opportunity, have touched down on Mars; (2) Hope has faded for the European Space Agency's Beagle II lost on Christmas Eve when it was supposed to have landed on Mars; and (3) President Bush has unveiled a new initiative to resume manned Lunar missions in preparation of an eventual manned space mission to the planet Mars. That's a lot for one month!

Where to begin? The first two items had been in the works for years. The three space vehicles spent months on their interplanetary journey to Mars. The third item caught more people by surprise although the rumors and leaks of the President's plan had been circulating for several weeks prior to the official announcement.

In an opinion column David Lawrence has written, "Now, from the President on down, the trend of comment indicates a belief that space exploration should continue until man sets foot on Mars or some other planet of our solar system." I discovered this column in my modest collection of space memorabilia which includes many yellowed newspaper clippings including the one quoted here.

The president Lawrence was writing about was not George Bush 43. It wasn't George Bush 41 either. It was Richard M. Nixon. The piece had been published in 1969 shortly after the first manned lunar mission, Apollo 11. (I was 11 when I clipped it out and saved it.)

The column contains a quote by President Nixon who said, "in the year 2000 we will, on this earth, have visited new worlds, where there will be a form of life." Such grand words of optimism.

Not since accomplishing John F. Kennedy's goal of putting a man on the moon and returning him safely by the close of the 1960's have humans arrived at another celestial body on schedule. We have obviously missed Nixon's 2000 deadline for a Mars landing. Have any other presidents between Nixon and George W. bush expressed any sort of Mars policy or tried to set any such goals for this nation?

The only manned U.S. space flight during the Gerald Ford administration was the joint U.S. and Soviet Apollo-Soyuz test mission. Under Carter there was not a single manned U.S. space flight. Neither administration advocated going to Mars. However, Carter did report seeing a UFO that turned out to be the planet Venus.

The space shuttle, originally approved under Nixon, became operational in Ronald Reagan's first term as president. In 1984 Reagan approved development for what would eventually become the International Space Station (ISS), a cooperative venture between the U.S. and 16 other nations. Apparently, sending men to Mars was still not a burning desire for presidents in those days.

During his term as president George Bush 41 called for a "Moon-to- Mars" program with the goal of landing humans on Mars by the year 2019 - the 50th anniversary of Neil Armstrong's famous one small step on the moon. In the end NASA concluded that the program, which entailed building spaceports, lunar bases and Mars colonies was too expensive.

In 1996 the stunning news of possible micro fossils discovered in a meteorite that was suspected of originating from Mars was announced by a group of scientists from NASA and Stanford University. President Clinton used the opportunity to talk about Mars. "I am determined the American space program will put its full intellectual power and technological prowess behind the search for further evidence of life on Mars," said Clinton as quoted in Florida Today's Space Online.

The intellectual power selected by Clinton to make it so was then Vice President Al Gore. He ordered Gore to coordinate a national summit to explore new Mars initiatives. Interest in the summit was lackluster and eventually Maryland Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D) of the Senate Appropriations Committee sent Gore a letter requesting that the summit idea be killed.

Clinton's support of Bush 41's goal of a manned landing on Mars by 2019 was luke warm. When asked about it by Walter Cronkite in an October 1998 interview Clinton said, "I don't want to either affirm or renounce it."

The current Mars initiative is an outgrowth of soul searching at NASA following the loss of the space shuttle Columbia one year ago this month. Since then NASA has been struggling to regain it's focus. In terms of manned flight NASA's largest commitment at this time is the ISS and the space shuttle that is used to build it.

In his new initiative President Bush has asked for completion of the ISS by 2010 at which time the space shuttle fleet, which is currently grounded because of the loss of Columbia, will be retired after 30 years in service. A new manned spacecraft dubbed the Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) would be developed which could be used to service the ISS. The goal is for a manned CEV launch by 2014.

Next, humans will return to the Moon between 2015 and 2020 following a series of robotic lunar missions starting in 2008. From there Mars could be the next major objective.

Coincidentally, as mentioned in this column in December, the Chinese also have their eye on the moon. Since that column China Daily has reported China plans to launch a lunar orbiter within the next three years. The paper refers to the orbiter as "the first phase of China's lunar probe scheme." China is also hoping to launch a lunar sample return mission by 2010.

Some have criticized the Bush plan saying that he is attempting to start a new space race in order to beat China in landing a man on the moon. They need a better objection than that because I believe it has already been done.

Mars & Moon Star Points author Curtis Roelle took the image at left during a conjunction of the moon and Mars in July, 2003. The manned space initiative announced by President Bush proposes sending humans to both of these worlds.

The atrophotograph is a 1/125 second exposure on Kodak Professional Supra 400 film shot through a 12.5 inch Equatorial Newtonian reflector telescope equipped with a barlow lens built by Alin Tolea, a graduate student in astronomy at Johns Hopkins University in Baltmimore.