18 January 2003
The United States hopes to send an astronaut to Mars in a nuclear-powered rocket, according to a senior Nasa official. Under the space agency's ambitious plan, humans would be sent on a two-month journey to Mars in a spaceship travelling at three times the current speed of space travel.
President George Bush may announce the plan, named Project Prometheus, at his State of the Union address on January 28, according to a report in the Los Angeles Times. It would commit the US to the exploration of Mars as a priority and herald the development of a nuclear-powered propulsion system. The first voyage could take place as soon as 2010.
"We're talking about doing something on a very aggressive schedule to not only develop the capabilities for nuclear propulsion and power generation but to have a mission using the new technology within this decade," said Nasa administrator Sean O'Keefe.
Currently, spacecraft travel at 18,000 miles per hour. The goal is to build a new vehicle which uses small nuclear reactors to give the engines a greater thrust and circumvent the problems of fuel supply.
This would mean that the craft could reach Mars within two months as opposed to the six-or seven-month journey time currently projected.
"We've been restricted to the same speed for 40 years," Mr O'Keefe said. "With the new technology, where we go next will be limited only by our imagination."
There may, however, be limitations of a different kind. With the US entering a recession and facing the potential costs of war with Iraq, Congress may be disinclined to sign a blank cheque for a multibillion-dollar project with no guarantee of success.
When George Bush senior proposed a similar scheme to explore Mars in 1989, he was rebuffed by Congress and there was little public enthusiasm for the idea.
Part of the attraction for President Bush in announcing the project would be the stimulus it might provide for scientists and engineers. Many of the pioneers of space travel are now retiring and have not been replaced.
Numbers of students enrolling in science and engineering courses have also declined. Some experts believe a Mars project might improve the industry's image.
There is a precedent for announcing such a project at a time of national crisis: President Nixon launched the space shuttle programme during a recession as way of boosting the economy in California.
But, according to the report, no final decision has yet been made on whether President Bush will highlight the project, as there has been criticism of his budget plans. Announcing such an expensive plan might appear provocative.
Nasa is expected to ask Boeing to assist in the design of the new rocket. The project could provide a significant boost for employment in the aerospace industry in southern California.
Nasa announced last year that it was preparing to spend $1bn over the next five years on developing a nuclear rocket.
The project throws up many questions about the effects of such travel on humans. Already astronauts are returning to Earth with a decrease of up to 30% in their muscle mass and 10% in their bone mass.
The more arduous flight to Mars would increase such problems. There would also be medical concerns about radiation from the engines.