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Interest in Space Travel Debated at Vancouver Conference - 2004-10-10


The future of the space station and re-engaging public interest in space travel were among the topics discussed recently at a major space conference in Vancouver. New ideas were given on how to make space travel popular again.

Much of the attention at the annual International Astronautical Congress concentrated on the future of the International Space Station, future interplanetary travel and recapturing the public's support.

The U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Administrator Sean O'Keefe says he hopes developments, like the recent SpaceShipOne winning the X Prize, will re-invigourate interest is space travel.

Talking to reporters, he says current missions into earth orbit are worthwhile and producing results. But he admits the public is missing out on this information, because it has become a non-item for the media. "Today, Gennady Padalka and Mike Fincke are aboard the International Space Station. There aren't many folks who know that. And as much as we talk about it all the time, you all choose not to write or talk about it very much. Yet those two folks who are up there today as the ninth crew in succession, after four consecutive years of a partnership that is pulling this together, 24-7 everyday to keep two people in position where they are doing remarkable things here. Okay, how do we make it exciting enough for you to write about? And want to really relate it in a way that makes it available and exciting to the public therefore meriting your attention. That's a challenge we aught to take on," he said.

Academy Award winning filmmaker James Cameron has a few ideas on how to reverse this declining interest.

He says filmmakers need to be brought on-board at the planning stages of the NASA advisory panel. He says this will allow for the public to get a better visual image and understanding of what outer space is like. In other words, not as an afterthought or not strictly in a science role, but in a story telling role. And if that means that the mission planners and the astronauts actually sit in some kind of planning environment with film makers and say, how do we tell the story best? Where do we put the camera? In robotics missions, if you send two robots and let one image the other, your return to the public is going to be vastly greater than what I call the postcard images. The postcard images are; I'm looking at a rock, I'm looking at a landscape. They're nice images, but there's no character in the image, there's no protagonist," he said.

For Wesley T. Huntress Jr., of the Carnegie Institute in Washington, the problem is perceived lack of new direction.

Mr. Huntress who once was Associate Administrator at NASA for Space Science says the public has to see space exploration go somewhere new, not just to the space station. The problem with the last 30 years or so in human space travel is the fact it's not going anywhere. And I think that disappointment has set in that we spent all this time going back and forth to the station. And humans want to go to new places. They want to experience new things and they want to see new vistas and they want to go to places they haven't been before," he said.

Mr. Huntress suggests the next step should be sending humans to Mars, with the space station being apart of any manned mission. Marc Garneau, the President of the Canadian Space Agency says another way to popularize space is keeping the interest, particularly among students alive.

Mr. Garneau, who became Canada's first astronaut to enter space 20 years ago this month, said childhood imagination has to be maintained. Somewhere along they way, and I think that we all recognize that children have very developed imaginations. They're dreamers. They think that everything is possible. And somewhere along the way, we drum that out of them. As we teach them to grow up and become adults. And somewhere along the way the fascination with space begins to fade away. And although it's hard work to be a good scientist or a good engineer, they feel so strongly about it that they actually make that effort. And I'll like to find that magic bullet that will encourage more young people to think about that," he said.

During the conference, the U.S. NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe, said the agency is implementing the recommendations of a review board setup to investigate the Columbia accident. NASA's space shuttle Columbia exploded during re-entry in February 2003, killing all seven astronauts aboard. He also said the agency is trying to improve the way it does business with contractors and other countries.

But any future initiatives that send human beings into orbit and beyond rest with the return of the shuttle. Current estimates put the first launch since the Columbia accident in the middle of next year.