Funding Cuts Have Meant Losing 'a Little Bit of Magic'

[Slingshot Power: Momentum-exchange tethers, or bolos, may one day provide a boost to space probes and to crew capsules headed to the moon.]
By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 25, 2008

In a few decades, spacecraft might travel by solar sail -- pushed along by nothing more than photons, the tiny packets of light itself. Astronauts might dine on remote-controlled vegetables and breathe oxygen mined from moon dirt, and astronomers could be using X-ray telescopes to see changes in the fabric of space-time.

Or not.

These are the ideas at the edge of NASA's imagination, and off of it. Well within it, NASA scientists are already working on technology for a "Jamestown" on the moon in the 2020s and another settlement after that on Mars.

Beyond that, scientists in the private sector have imagined a world where antimatter might be harvested for fuel, and where a huge slingshot in space would fling passing satellites up and into orbit.

These were never sure things: Most will likely go the way of flying cars and personal jet packs.

But scientists say it has become harder to dream big and weird about space, since NASA last year shut down a program designed to fund projects for the distant future.

"What we've lost is a piece of imagination," said Diana Jennings, a scientist in Cambridge, Mass., whose company imagined a "Star Trek"-style food replicator, making potato chips or strip steak at the touch of a button. "We've lost a little bit of the magic. 'Cause I don't know who's going to fund this stuff."

Within NASA, ideas for the distant future center on two goals: returning to the moon and landing on Mars. The agency wants to build permanent outposts on the moon. The switch, said Chris Shank, NASA's chief of strategic communications, would be from the model of Christopher Columbus to that of the Jamestown colonists.

But that, scientists say, would require significant breakthroughs.

"How do we live off the land, on the moon?" asked Gerald Sanders, a NASA official in Houston who works on "in-situ resource utilization." His laboratory has proposed making water and breathable air from moon dust, using chemical processes to unlock the oxygen inside it.

A NASA contractor, Hamilton Sundstrand, has tried to tackle the other end of the water problem. It is designing a system that would recycle wastewater and render it drinkable again.

"If you're going to have an open loop on water" on a spaceship -- meaning that waste is simply dumped and clean water is brought in from outside -- "that's all you're going to be able to carry," said Ed Francis, a vice president.

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