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NASA Boss Wants Innovation

New technology will get humans to Mars, says Charles Bolden, Jr.

NASA’s administrator Charles Bolden, Jr. says the agency plans to come up with revolutionary new space technologies so that humans can reach Mars under the current plan. NASA’s scientists and engineers, along with academic collaborators, will have to invent new forms of space propulsion, in-flight refueling systems, space robotics and precision landing technologies, Bolden said yesterday at MIT.

NASA administrator Charles Bolden, Jr. speaking in
a lecture hall at MIT. Credit: Brittany Sauser

NASA’s future has been hotly debated since President Obama announced his new budget proposal for the agency in January 2010. Obama’s proposal cancelled the Constellation program, a plan for developing new launch and transportation technology and returning humans to the moon by 2020. Instead, the budget focuses heavily on using the commercial sector to ferry astronaut to and from low earth orbit; and on pursing a more flexible path–sending humans and robotics to the moon, asteroids, the moons of Mars, with Mars itself as the ultimate destination.

Bolden is “committed” to the president’s plan. “It was a hard choice to step back from the Constellation program and create a new path forward, but the president, with my full agreement, made a change that took a lot of courage,” he said during a talk given to students and academics. Bolden believes the new budget will set NASA on a sustainable course to explore beyond earth.

But he called for a new era of invention at the agency. “We have not done anything in the past decade for basic research,” he said. “The frustration for me is that when I go to Congress, all we talk about is Constellation and human spaceflight. We forget that the president’s plan is to spend a lot of money on basic research.”

Bolden believes NASA should collaborate with academic researchers on new projects and Obama’s plan includes billions of dollars for such research and development in a variety of areas. Ultimately, Bolden wants humans to colonize Mars. But the first step should be additional robotic exploration, he said. “Robots can help us understand everything there is to know about the planet’s harsh environment.” He also mentioned a new propulsion technology, the VASIMR engine being built by former astronaut Franklin Chang-Diaz, for travel to Mars. “If it works, it goes fast, cutting the trip time down.” (Currently, the Red Planet is an 8-month journey away and we don’t have a vehicle to even attempt to send humans because of the radiation exposure. NASA needs to build bigger spacecraft with more shielding or better engine technology like VASIMR to get humans there quickly–Diaz engine would at the very least cut the trip time to Mars in half.)

The NASA administrator said that he believes strongly in the commercial sector. He noted that the commercial space industry has worked on NASA-built spacecraft since their inception. Under the new plan the difference is that commercial space companies will own the spacecraft and the government will lease them for missions. When a spacecraft is not being rented by NASA, the company can use it for space tourism or whatever they like. Bolden also said that the government is putting $6 billion dollars into the development of commercial spacecraft, so “we will be responsible for tests to human rate the spacecraft [to ensure they are safe] and to make sure it meets what we want.”

How the spacecraft will be operated–who sits in the flight control room and where it’s located, and how astronauts are trained, for example–is still being worked out. Bolden said he hopes to “entice” commercial companies to use NASA facilities as much as possible.

Bolden was energetic and charismatic in his talk, but spoke strongly. “NASA is committed to a new era of exploration, the 21st century space enterprise,” he said, adding that the new plan has lofty goals that will create “a transformative path”–new technologies, new markets, new high tech jobs, new scientific discoveries, and a new era of space exploration.

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