Panel warns NASA is focused on short-term goals

By Jeff Hecht NASA may get its Moon-Mars programme off the ground, and even land astronauts on the Moon. But it’s going to have trouble establishing a long-term lunar base or making the big leap to Mars, says an expert review panel. NASA asked the National Research Council panel to assess its progress in implementing the “Vision for Space Exploration” that President George W Bush announced in January 2004. A report issued on Thursday concludes that prospects are good for replacing the space shuttle and returning humans to the Moon. But NASA faces serious problems in going further. With tight budgets and ambitious schedules, the space agency has focused too much on short-term goals. “NASA has effectively suspended research in a number of technology areas traditionally within the agency’s scope, and has in many areas effectively ended support for longer-term technology research” vital to long-duration lunar missions and reaching Mars, the panel reports. This has led to critical gaps in the programme. One key issue is a disconnect between developing technology and keeping astronauts alive and healthy on demanding missions. Such troubles are not new. The panel cited previous problems with ill-fitting spacesuits and a decision to disinfect shuttle drinking water with iodine, which provided too high a level of the element and affected the function of astronauts’ thyroids. Long-term space missions present further health challenges, including radiation exposure and the psychological stress of confinement in a small spacecraft. Panel members were disturbed to learn that some NASA presenters to the panel “were unaware of the existence of human system risk/requirements documents,” and urged NASA to add human research specialists to its technology development teams. The panel also cited NASA’s current neglect of nuclear thermal propulsion, in which a nuclear reactor heats a propellant to produce thrust in space. The concept was demonstrated in the 1960s, and the report says its utility and technical feasibility have been established. A nuclear thermal rocket could make a round-trip to Mars in less than 500 days,
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