The gates to space remain open and American explorers can fly through them early in the next century, back to the moon and then to Mars, one of America's leading astronauts said yesterday.
Before this can happen, however, NASA "has to get its act together" and the government must commit the financial resources, said retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Thomas P. Stafford, who flew into space four times, including to the moon. General Stafford spoke to students at St. Paul's School for Girls, in Brooklandville, yesterday.
"We have only scratched the surface of space exploration," he said. "There are 400 billion stars in our galaxy and somewhere out there could be other intelligent life, and down the road some of you may have a chance to participate in these activities."
In the early days of the space program that led to the spectacular lunar missions, NASA had dynamic management and a "can-do attitude. We did the impossible," General Stafford, now board chairman of the Omega Watch Co., told the students.
As NASA, like several large American corporations, degenerated into a "bureaucracy," the country's fortunes in space declined, said General Stafford, one of eight holders of the Congressional Space Medal of Honor. If the U.S. expects to use new ideas, such as nuclear-powered rockets that will permit longer, faster voyages for space exploration and travel, the old "can-do" attitude must be revived, he said.
The students sat rapt as General Stafford described potential 500- and 1,000-day Mars missions. Personal observations of the
Red Planet, particularly its loss of water and warmth, instead of those done by robots and satellites, can help scientists understand the possibilities for Earth's future, he said.
In 1991, General Stafford, a 1952 Naval Academy graduate, led a 10-month study of America's space program and its potential. President Bush ordered the review.
Among the group's 14 recommendations were suggestions for colonizing the moon, so its natural resources could benefit Earth, and to visit Mars, perhaps as soon as 2014 to 2016.
Future space travel and exploration will involve international cooperation, General Stafford said. The United States and Russia also will continue on future space projects that began even as the Cold War dragged on.
After the talk, students clustered around the general, who is on a combination promotion and community-service tour for his company. Earlier yesterday he visited Garrison Forest School in Owings Mills.
"I've always been interested in being an astronaut but the opportunities are so limited," said Christina Speed, 17, of Upperco, a St. Paul's senior who plans to study biology at the University of North Carolina.
General Stafford assured her that biologists have an important place in the space program.
For Bessie Oster, 17, of Roland Park, also a senior, the fascination with space lies in navigating and planning the routes. The general explained that the routes and orbits are plotted meticulously before lift-off, so the pilots usually only have to make minor in-flight corrections.
Sarah Burns, 16, a junior from Guilford, said that her astronomy course this year "is the first science-related course I've been interested in." She said that General Stafford's visit boosted her interest still further. "He talked about stuff we don't talk about in class. It's unbelievable," Miss Burns said.
Mariceleste Miller, a St. Paul's and Smith College alumna who has taught astronomy at the Brooklandville school since January 1992, said the general's visit gave a real-world dimension to the classroom studies.
"I really wanted the students to see how it applies in the real world, how it is used," she said.