NASA looking beyond 2001

Space station, unmanned probes top the near-term agenda

By Gordon Marsh

      Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" is about a computer that takes over a spaceship on its way to explore the Jupiter. The idea of a space exploration mission being taken over by an on-board computer horrified moviegoers at the time of its release. However, not all of this movie is fictional. Computers have already replaced humans in space as explorers. NASA has sent probes to Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune without a single astronaut at the helm.
      Why? NASA says robots and computers are better equipped to handle the rigors of space travel. In a move to be more efficient and cost effective, NASA has decided to receive reports from space rather than having astronauts explore first hand.
      Viking 1 and 2 were unmanned probes sent to take samples and map the surface of Mars. A manned voyage to another planet takes a lot more time and money.
      "The Discovery Channel" has done documentaries on the practicality of a manned mission to Mars. The time and money that it would take to put together and launch such a mission would be enormous.
      NASA said an expedition to Mars would first involve the use of a space station to use as a starting point for the trip. The first of three phases of the International Space Station (ISS) is scheduled for launch in November of 1997. The space station won't be completed for several years, and there are no signs that a trip to Mars will come about before the magical year of 2001. In fact, the space station won't be completed until after 2003.
      However, the March 17, 1997 issue of Newsweek reports that this timeline, if not the whole mission, is jeopardy. Key sections of the space station that were promised by the Russia Space Agency have fallen eight months behind schedule because they have run out of money. According to the article, Vice President Al Gore was promised $100 million by Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin last February, but so far, no money has arrived. If NASA is forced to find a replacement for the missing Russia sections, it will increase the costs due to another step in redesigning.
      If NASA had the same budget that it had under the Kennedy administration, we might have been at the technological level seen in "2001". NASA's staff has been cut from hundreds of thousands during the Apollo 11 launch to about 20,000 now. Mars, apparently, will just have to wait.