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World Space Congress Focuses on Uncertain Goals - 2002-10-25

Once every ten years, the world's space community assembles to take stock of the present and chart new directions for humanity's next decade in space. The World Space Congress took place this month (October) in Houston, Texas, and featured sessions about science, technology, past space missions, legal issues, and commercial applications, among other topics. But, a major focus pof concern at the Congress was the slow progress and uncertain goals of today's space programs.

It's often said that the International Space Station is "the next step".

"But everyone in the public wants to know, to what? And so what is our future in space and we need to articulate what that future is, and whether we have a manifest destiny beyond Earth orbit, says Wesley Huntress, who directs the Geo-Physical Laboratories at the Carnegie Institution in Washington DC. He says the American public is apathetic about space travel ... in part because the United States has no strong direction.

The U.S. space agency, NASA, could set its sights on our solar system's asteroids, or on Mars... but the Moon, he says, would be a good start, since it still holds many mysteries. "We can search for evidence of the origin of the Earth-Moon system, there are still questions we're asking there... We can examine the history of asteroid and comet impacts on the Earth because that record is preserved on the moon," he says. "We can also obtain evidence of the Sun's history throughout time by looking at the solar winds implanted in lunar soils of various ages."

"We should be running scared in exploring the solar system with human beings and we should be running fast, says Gemini, Apollo and Shuttle Columbia astronaut Captain John Young, who agrees the Moon holds great promise for improving life on Earth... if we can harness its potential. "There's a place at the south pole of the Moon where 70% of the time you're in sunlight, you could deliver solar power to our planet reliably, non-polluting solar power that would come down on the surface of our Earth and control things like CO2."

Other nations have active space programs, and they were also represented at the World Space Congress. Japan is focusing on robotic probes but one of its first goals for human exploration may be the moon.

In contrast, the European Space Agency and Russia have specific plans for human space travel. The European Aurora Program is designed to land a human on Mars by the year 2030. With some sense of flashback to the space race of the past, Russian Professor Leonid Korchkov, speaking through an interpreter, said his country is moving ahead with its own plans to explore Mars, since a human space flight to the red planet is a low priority for NASA. "We have developed a simplified project of a flight to Mars. When the crew does not go down to the surface but stays in orbit around Mars and we are basically sending it in a virtual manner to the surface, we're sending their eyes and hands down to the surface of Mars. This project is cheaper and Russia finds it quite surmountable," he says.

Congress attendees said space offers continually expanding resources for commerce, science, technology, and education. Some American space boosters, like Captain John Young, say they're concerned that the lack of public enthusiasm over space travel will hurt the United States' ability to attract bright young minds to the field. "We're not going to motivate people to do this until you get a national goal of getting out of earth orbit... going back to the Moon and on to Mars," he says.

In 1963, President John Kennedy challenged Americans to reach the moon by the end of the decade. Captain Young says it's again up to the president to direct the nation's energies on space... to say 'We're going to do it, and we're going to put muscle into it.'