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The Future of Space Exploration

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Michael J. Braukus
Office of Exploration, NASA
Thursday, June 22, 2006; 1:00 PM

What are the next steps for America's space program? How possible will "vacations" to outer space be in the next 50 years? What more will we discover on Mars or among other parts of the solar system?

Michael Braukus , a spokesman for NASA's Office of Exploration was online Thursday, June 22 at 1 p.m. ET to answer your questions.

A transcript follows .

About this series: Beyond the Future is a weeklong series of live Web chats with noted experts and Washington Post reporters examining the kinds of technological advancements the world could see in 20, 50 or even 100 years. Related news on the subject can be found on the Science and Tech Frontier pages of washingtonpost.com.

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Waldorf, Md.: I've heard that NASA will launch a series of satellites which will soon be able to actually see earth-like, earth-sized planets around nearby stars, and even survey the gases in their atmosphere. Do you know of any window for this project to be implemented? And will they focus on stars similar to our own sun, like Zeta 2 Reticuli.

That star is rumored to be the home solar system of the infamous Roswell UFO!

Michael Braukus: Sorry, I'm not familiar with that program. But you can contact one of my colleagues in space science. Try dwayne.c.brown@nasa.gov

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Dublin, Ireland: Will it ever become possible to mine materials from space such as gas or other minerals?

Michael Braukus: We think so. The moon has long been thought of as the place to mine/collect helium 3. NASA engineers and scientists now are developing an architecture for our plans on the moon's surface.

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Harrisburg, Pa.: When do you see a person landing on Mars?

Michael Braukus: First humans have to return to the moon. It's on the moon that we will develop the knowledge and the technology for long-term space exploration. Once we are comfortable that we can handle the challenges of an extended mission of more than a year, we will set off for Mars. That probably will be several years after we return to the moon, which is no later that 2020.

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Reston, Va.: Which method of settlement beyond this planet do you think is more likely - assuming either one is feasible - colonies in space or colonies on a planet or planets?

Michael Braukus: Our first effort at colonizing will be on the surface of the moon with just a handful of explorers but it will be a permanent settlement.

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Provo, Utah: Is it realistic to expect that we will eventually develop a propulsion system that will allow humans to explore other stars or solar systems? What sort of research is NASA doing in this area, and how close are we to a breakthrough that will make interstellar travel possible?

Michael Braukus: It probably won't happen in our lifetime but eventually the technology will be developed that will permit the types of exploration you mentioned.

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Munich, Germany: Will it be necessary to have a permanent base on the moon, before manned interplanetary space travel can become a reality?

How long do you think mankind has to wait for these milestones?

Michael Braukus: Yes. We need the experience that comes with maintaining a permanent base on the moon before we can set off for Mars.

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Fairfax, Va.: Of all the technologies that still need to be developed for a mission to Mars, which is the most important?

I feel like advancements in propulsion systems are necessary, something to decrease the time of flight between Earth and Mars. Perhaps, nuclear thermal propulsion (ala NERVA).

Michael Braukus: I agree but I have no preference on what type.

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Alabama: Regarding a manned Mars mission:

Exploring Mars seems to give us insights into the origins of the solar system and, possibly, the origins of life (or at the very least, life's ability to adapt to different climates). The unmanned probes and rovers we have sent to Mars seem to be doing a fantastic job of starting to answer those questions.

Why, then, should we send a person to the Red Planet? It seems to be extremely risky, with the reward being the same as sending a rover there. Leaving the questions of colonization aside (which seem to be distant possibilities), what scientific experiments could humans perform on Mars that machines couldn't?

Michael Braukus: Simply, a human could do more, regardless of the type of science. The rovers, which have done a great job, in the approximately two(?)years they have been on Mars have traveled the distance that a human could travel in less than a day. Plus, a human would be able to perform more tasks and not be depended on transmitting and receiving directions from Earth, which would take approximately 20 minutes.

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Fairfax, Va.: What kind of research is being done into radiation shielding for a long term lunar base or for the transit vehicle to Mars?

Michael Braukus: Various research is being conducted. Engineers are looking at the possibilites of using water as radiation insulation on spacecraft. Another type of shielding being discussed for the lunar base is using lunar soil. It's quite possible that we may put the lunar base under the moon's surface.

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Suitland, Md.: I've heard that the reason Mars is so cold is not because it's so far from the Sun. It's because Mars has such a thin atmosphere and that Earth would be much warmer than Mars if Earth were the same distance from the Sun as Mars. What about a planet with a thick atmosphere like Venus? How warm do you think Venus would be if it were 1.5 astronomical units (Mar's distance) from the Sun?

Michael Braukus: Very good questions. You would need a planetary scientist, which I'm not, to answer them.

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Bethesda, Md.: Obviously Mars is one of the next big deals for NASA, but looking ahead even further into the future, where else do you think NASA's effort and engery should be headed? And what kind of benefits could we have on Earth with some of these discoveries??

Michael Braukus: After Mars comes the rest of the solar system. Hopefully by then we will have a spacecraft propulsion system that will allow humans to visit other heavenly bodies in a timely manner.

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Munich, Germany: Any thought on how NASA will evolve as space travel evolves.

Most science fiction that I've read or watched depicts space travel as originating from an international body or federation.

Michael Braukus: Maybe someday that will happen.

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La Baule, France: Do you agree with terraforming Mars? That was the central theme of Robinson's Mars series. He was kind of against it, but I think it would be great... Which leads to the main question, do you think it would be possible in, say, the next 100 years?

Thanks. Love the chat.

Michael Braukus: We are having difficulty growing and cultivating plants on the International Space Station, I'm not sure Mars would respond favorably to attempts at terraforming.

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Orlando, Fla.: Arguably the most cost effective space research is unmanned expeditions. Why do we continue to push for manned missions? Just on a cost efficiency basis doesn't unmanned make more sense?

Michael Braukus: Simply, humans can do more than robots. In returning to the moon, we are using robotic spacecraft to gather data about the surface and possible landing sites, but it will be humans that will land and set up a lunar base.

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Childhood's End: I keep thinking of this wonderful book by Arthur C. Clarke and its message that man was not meant for the stars. I also think of Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars Trilogy, where humans have to develop propulsion systems and lengthen their lifespans to make interstellar trips feasible -- and even then, they take decades.

Do you think interstellar travel is ever possible, or (to put it one way) will we have to "evolve" or make significant improvements to our longevity to make it work?

Michael Braukus: One day it will be, but not in our lifetime.

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Washington, D.C.: Where do you think is the best place (besides Earth, of course) to look for life in our solar system? Mars of the moons of Jupiter or Saturn?

Michael Braukus: I'm not sure which is the "best" place. But since it is our plan to explore Mars, human explorers will finally be able to answer the question of whether there is or was life on Mars.

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Fairfax, Va.: What location on the Moon is NASA considering placing a base? Are the lunar poles still heavily favored due to the possibility of ice?

Michael Braukus: The lunar south pole is being considered and the possibility of the presence of ice is the reason.

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Falls Church, Va.: I just read that a study found most people can't understand the need to explore other planets and don't see a clear goal in the Vision for Space Exploration. What can be done to make the usefulness/goals of space exploration more obvious to the general public?

Michael Braukus: We're doing our best to communicate the benefits of exploration to Americans. If you have any ideas, you have my attention.

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Columbia, S.C.: Mr. Braukus,

Thanks for being with us today. I have a politically-minded question that has always intrigued me. To ensure redundant tracking of objects in space and in the name of contingency planning, I understand the U.S. requires bases or leased time on equipment all around the world - radar, telescopes, radio, even airfields, correct? Is this the realm of politics, international science, or some mixture of the two? How much political capital can be burned by an unpopular view of the U.S. before these assets become jeopardized?

Michael Braukus: Actually, the U.S. Air Force tracks all objects in space. They tell us when a piece of space debris threatens the space shuttle or International Space Station. We then move the spacecraft out of harms way.

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Orono, Maine: NASA has identified key challenges to a Mars mission - such as the problem of establishing, base and carrying enough fuel to get there and back again, and the unknown psychological impacts of extended space travel. Should we realistically expect that these challenges can be overcome and that we will land a man or woman on Mars within the next 20 years?

Michael Braukus: You can bet on it.

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Michael Braukus: Thanks everyone. It was a pleasure chating with you. Have a good afternoon.

Michael

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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