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Top US boffins issue stinging report

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Vid It's time to stop mucking about and get your ass to Mars. That was the message delivered by Arnold Schwarzenegger in Total Recall, but it's also the advice proffered by a report into NASA's interplanetary activities.

The National Research Council (NRC) has published a report in which it told NASA that its ultimate goal should be to land a manned mission on the Red Planet.

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It suggested the cost and risk of sending humans into space can only be justified to US taxpayers by big ticket achievements such as journeying to another world.

NASA is urged to take baby steps towards the "horizon goal" by setting out a series of missions and accomplishments which would eventually lead to human boots on the Martian surface.

Of course, managing this will require unprecedented international collaboration and a budget which increases at a rate far in excess of inflation.

“The United States has been a leader in human space exploration for more than five decades, and our efforts in low Earth orbit with our partners are approaching maturity with the completion of the International Space Station. We as a nation must decide now how to embark on human space exploration beyond low Earth orbit in a sustainable fashion,” said Jonathan Lunine, director of the Center for Radiophysics and Space Research at Cornell University and co-chair of the committee that wrote the report.

“The technical analysis completed for this study shows that for the foreseeable future, the only feasible destinations for human exploration are the Moon, asteroids, Mars, and the moons of Mars. Among this small set of plausible goals, the most distant and difficult is putting human boots on the surface of Mars, thus that is the horizon goal for human space exploration. All long-range space programs by our potential partners converge on this goal.”

The cost of this herculean effort is likely to be steep, so the NRC advises hiking up the NASA budget by five per cent each year. However, the US public do not always get behind space exploration programmes unless there is a clear, tangible and impressive achievement at the end of them, the NRC warned.

Extra-planetary missions used to be justified in a variety of reasons, with politicians arguing human space exploration would boost America's international standing, help the growth of its economy or aid the nation's scientific development.

However, seeing as space missions are not a priority to many Americans, the NRC advised NASA to argue space flight helps to meet "aspirational goals" such as a shared human destiny, the urge to explore and the long term survival of the human species.

“Human space exploration remains vital to the national interest for inspirational and aspirational reasons that appeal to a broad range of U.S. citizens,” said Purdue University president, former Governor of Indiana, and committee co-chair Mitchell Daniels. “But given the expense of any human spaceflight program and the significant risk to the crews involved, in our view the only pathways that fit these criteria are those that ultimately place humans on other worlds."

So what's getting in the way of landing the stars and stripes on another planet? It's the economy, stupid.

“Our committee concluded that any human exploration program will only succeed if it is appropriately funded and receives a sustained commitment on the part of those who govern our nation," Daniels added. "That commitment cannot change direction election after election. Our elected leaders are the critical enablers of the nation’s investment in human spaceflight, and only they can assure that the leadership, personnel, governance, and resources are in place in our human exploration program."

The report is called "Pathways to Exploration: Rationales and Approaches for a U.S. Program of Human Space Exploration" and can be found here. ®

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