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NASA Upbeat on Space Exploration - 2003-03-19


A NASA official says the coming year should bring some breakthroughs in space exploration as the agency moves beyond the tragedy that claimed the lives of seven astronauts. The unmanned, and possibly manned, flights are planned for this year.

Charles Elachi, director of Jet Propulsion Laboratory, NASA's leading center for planetary research says, while investigators are seeking the cause of Columbia's failure, NASA continues its quest at space centers like JPL in Pasadena, California.

"Looking in the near term, we have four launches coming in the next three months," he said. "Two of them are astronomical telescopes, one infrared and one ultraviolet. And then two launches in May and June, which are two rovers will be going to Mars," said Mr. Elachi, who was a research scientist at the laboratory for 30 years, and has been its director for two years.

The Mars rovers will arrive at the red planet next January, and may answer tantalizing questions about water that may once have existed there.

"The next step beyond that is to say, if there was a large amount of water, did that lead to some kind of life, which have evolved or have been extinguished?" said Mr. Elachi."

In Washington, NASA officials hope to resume human space flights, possibly putting the three remaining space shuttles back into operation later this year. The timetable will depend on the recommendations of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board.

Charles Elachi wants the shuttle to fly again and notes that exploration always involves danger.

"You always find courageous men and women who, knowing the danger, actually still do it because it benefits everybody else. So even though it is sad, I think that's part of an exploration endeavor that we have to do," stressed the space agency official. "And definitely, there's no doubt in my mind that NASA and our nation will address the issue and understand the problem, fix it and move forward."

The official says both manned and unmanned missions remain important to NASA. He says missions to study Io and Europa, two moons of Jupiter that are highly radioactive, must be done with robots. He adds that robotic explorers could pave the way for human visitors to Mars.

Mr. Elachi recalls that as a boy growing up in Lebanon, he heard of two satellites, the Soviet Union's Sputnik and NASA's Explorer. The U.S. Explorer series was launched by Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Today, as the lab's director, he is trying to answer questions that have intrigued him since his childhood. "These are pieces of the puzzle that we are working on, piece by piece, Mars being one piece, the Europa exploration another one, studying comets is another one," he said.

He says NASA's goal is to search for life in space, to learn where life came from and how it evolved, to help us better understand our own planet.