March 24, 1999 — Scientists have turned carbon
dioxide into oxygen in a simulated Martian
atmosphere, NASA’s chief reported at
Wednesday’s “Space 2000” symposium. The
technique could represent one small step
toward eventual human missions to the Red
DURING A WIDE-RANGING talk on the future of
space exploration, NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin
referred to an experiment in which scientists processed a
mixture of gases mirroring the composition of Mars’
atmosphere, which is 95 percent carbon dioxide.
“Out of that atmosphere, we built oxygen out of the
carbon dioxide,” Goldin said.
Using robots to convert Martian materials into air,
water and fuel plays a major part in the planning for human
missions to Mars. Scientists hope to demonstrate techniques
for in-situ production of rocket propellant during a Mars
mission to be launched in 2001.
Eventually, mission planners hope robots will be able to
convert Mars’ atmosphere, rock and soil into resources to
be stockpiled for use by human visitors — not only to
survive on Mars, but also to get back to Earth.
Goldin did not elaborate on the oxygen-production
experiment, but said further details would be provided
ONE GIANT LEAP
Making the leap beyond Earth emerged as a major
theme for Wednesday’s all-day symposium at American
University in Washington, which was aired by NASA and
broadcast over the Internet by MSNBC. Conference
organizer Richard Berendzen, an American University
professor and consultant to NASA, said the “Space 2000”
Web site recorded more than 1.5 million hits in the weeks
leading up to the event.
The list of speakers included students and scientists as
well as “Star Trek: Voyager” actor Robert Picardo and Bill
Nye (“the Science Guy”).
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Moonwalker Buzz Aldrin discussed his ShareSpace
venture, which would set up a lottery to put ordinary people
on space vehicles. Astronaut Franklin Chang-Diaz outlined
his concept for using plasma propulsion to send humans to
Mars. Donna Shirley, former manager of the Mars
Exploration Program, gave a boost to the Mars Millennium
Project — which is enlisting students to create plans for a
human settlement on Mars in 2030.
Several panelists portrayed interplanetary travel as a
long-term insurance policy for humanity — a way to avoid
having all of the species’ eggs in one planetary basket.
“Once every hundred million years, we face the
possibility of a significant impact from an asteroid or a
comet” that could lead to a mass extinction, observed Jill
Tarter, senior program scientist for the SETI Institute.
“Suppose that humankind had more than one home —
that we used more than one body in our solar system for
habitation,” she said. “That would allow humanity a species
NASA engineer Homer Hickam, whose autobiography
was turned into the recently released movie “October Sky,”
said a deep impact was not the only threat.
“It doesn’t have to be from the outside,” he said.
“We’re quite capable of creating calamity by ourselves.”
Tarter said the colonization team wouldn’t have to be
large: “You could get by with as few as 16 individuals ...
with very strict breeding rules about who can breed with whom.”
HUMANS AND ROBOTS
Goldin begged the audience’s indulgence for
Wednesday’s flights of fancy: “Let yourself float a little bit.”
He said that humans would work in concert with
“robotic colonies” to explore other worlds. He sketched out
an ambitious decade’s worth of robotic missions:
An airplane flight over Mars in 2003; a landing on the Saturnian
moon Titan in 2004; the arrival of an orbiter at Europa, a
moon of Jupiter, in 2006; the return of samples from Mars
in 2007; and the launch of a space observatory in 2008 that
could observe planets circling distant stars.
He said humans could journey to other worlds via
“total-immersion virtual presence” — using near-real-time
video links and simulators to reproduce a rover trip over
the Moon or an underwater ride through Europa’s depths.
And he pointed out that space exploration was likely to
yield valuable spinoffs in robotics, medicine, materials
science, power and propulsion, and information technology.
The symposium was dedicated to the late astronomer
Carl Sagan, author of “Cosmos” — and panelists freely
delved into the cosmic questions that Sagan loved:
For example, Tarter acknowledged that the decades-long
search for extraterrestrial intelligence, a quest in which she
has played a prominent role, could come to the ultimate
conclusion that humans were indeed the Universe’s only
“Practically, pragmatically, there might come a time
when we look around and say, ‘Well, it’s just us, and we’d
better do a better job with what we’ve got at hand — that
is, our planet, our solar system, our resources.’”
But others doubted that the quest would end that way.
“I don’t think we’re ever going to give up looking,”
Hickam said. “It’s too much fun to look, for one thing.”