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Mission possible: Mars NASA goal: Agency would like to quiet critics who say space station draining its budget.


THE LAUNCH of a second robot mission to Mars within a three-week period may help NASA mute critics who think the space station's cost unjustly limits funds for other space exploration projects.

The space station's $20 billion price tag hasn't thwarted NASA's Mars program. In fact, the possibility of a manned Mars mission has grown.

The Mars Climate Orbiter was launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla., on Dec. 11 and is scheduled to reach Mars in September. On Jan. 3, the Mars Polar Lander is scheduled to leave Earth on a similar voyage. Orbiter will circle the planet to monitor the atmosphere and surface from 262 miles up, while Polar Lander will touch down on Mars to gather information.

The probes will remind people of Mars Global Surveyor and Mars Pathfinder, which were sent to the planet in 1996. The four missions and others planned for 2001, 2003 and 2005 are collectively called Mars Surveyor. For a fraction of the cost of the space station, the project will collect important data that could pave the way for a manned mission to Mars.

NASA isn't doing a lot of talking about that possibility, but it has a plan that could send human beings to the planet in as little as 15 years. That plan would call for the use of nitrogen in the Martian atmosphere to produce methane as fuel for the astronauts' return journey. Data gathered by robotic probes in the next several years will assess whether that's feasible.

Of course, missions to Mars can also provide a great deal of knowledge about our planet. The Martian climate, in particular, may help scientists better understand Earth's climatic changes.

Mars may also hold a key to solving the mystery behind the creation of the solar system. Studying that cold planet could reveal what will ultimately be Earth's fate.

NASA is proving it can build the space station and go to Mars, too, so long as relatively inexpensive robots are sent to that planet. By the time the space station is completed in 2004, the feasibility of a manned Mars mission should be clear.

Let's hope this country will be able to support such an awesome project.

Pub Date: 12/25/98

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