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More momentum for Mars - and Martians.

More Momentum for Mars--and Martians

"The Viking biology experiments gaveus essentially no information about life on Mars,' recalls Christopher P. McKay of the NASA Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, Calif. The complex mission's four spacecraft, which reached the planet in 1976, neither found Martians nor ruled out the possibility of their existence, though some researchers concluded that the failure to detect organic materials on the surface made the case a considerably weaker one.

The next U.S. Mars mission, scheduledfor launch in 1992, will only orbit the planet, not land on it, and Soviet researchers have given only brief indication that ony of four planned Soviet missions--the first of them due to take off next summer--would be equipped to carry on the search for life.

But a satellite-aided television conference-calllast week between space-program representatives from the two superpowers left the U.S. participants with the feeling that Soviet interest in the issue has been underestimated.

Arranged by the Planetary Society, alarge, pro-space group based in California, the call was conducted between a Soviet group in Moscow and an American group on the campus of the University of Colorado in Boulder, the site of a Marsmission conference called the Case for Mars. "I was surprised by the extent to which they were interested in looking for life on Mars,' says McKay. "It was their big thing. In fact, as chairman, the biggest problem I had was that they wanted to give us too much information--I had to cut them off so that we [the U.S. scientists] could talk.'

Unfortunately, communications duringthe "teleconference,' dubbed "Space-bridge' by the Planetary Society, were less than perfect, preventing as much conversation as the participants had hoped. "We wanted to ask them details,' McKay says, and during an unplanned audio gap the intrigued Americans thought about follow-up questions. "We thought we were going to get linked up again, so we went through and talked over what we would like to ask them--things like "How exactly would you measure life?' came up, and "Why do you think there's water under the ground?''

U.S. and Soviet officials alike have beenconsidering the possibility of sending human beings to Mars, perhaps in a cooperative international program. Another question from the American side, says McKay, might have been "Do you consider your presently planned missions part of a long-term program that leads to humans?''

The limited time remaining did notprovide the opportunity, but one Soviet scientist did suggest that interest in the possibility of Martians is high enough to warrant pursuing it well before humans go there to look, which could be 20 years or more. "There's no point,' he said, "in waiting to send man to Mars.'

Even apart from further searches forMartian life-forms, many U.S. space scientists have expressed frustration in recent years about the decline in NASA's plans for planetary exploration, including Mars missions beyond the planned 1992 "Mars Observer.' According to former NASA Administrator Thomas Paine, head of the presidentially appointed National Commission on Space as well as of last week's Case for Mars meeting, "Mars should be the central focus of our long-range, manned space program.

"Today NASA's budget is about a thirdof the size that it was when I was running it,' he told the meeting. "I don't think it has to be back at the peak of Apollo, but I think it ought to be at least half. And I think, furthermore, that that half should be related to the total economy of the United States, so that as that economy grows, we also increase our efforts on the space frontier.'

A complaint often raised about NASA'splanetary program recently has been a lack of continuity. With appropriate continuity, Paine said, launch vehicles should be "coming down the assembly line, at a rate that we've all agreed is an efficient rate to produce them, and then we go ahead and put the spacecraft for the outer-planet missions--which, again, will have been built either serially or else in batches of three or four or five--and we put each of those where it does the most good. . . . The biggest expense with any of these spacecraft is the R&D to produce the first one. It costs very little then to make the additional ones, and we haven't been taking advantage of those economies.'

As for the possibility of Martian life--dismissed these days by some researchers but still as vital and potentially momentous as ever to others--Paine takes another view, independent of whether the Big Question can be answered by robot space probes. A staunch advocate of human exploration of Mars as a goal, in part, to get the U.S. space program back on track for the future, Paine told the Boulder meeting: "If there isn't life on Mars, and if there wasn't life on Mars, there's damn well going to be.'
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Title Annotation:U.S. and Soviet plans to explore Mars
Author:Eberhart, Jonathan
Publication:Science News
Date:Aug 1, 1987
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