Extending space station key to Mars: NASA scientist

Mon Aug 31, 2009 2:09pm EDT
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By Irene Klotz

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (Reuters) - Getting humans to Mars will require medical research on the International Space Station through at least 2020, said the program's lead scientist, presenting a time frame five years beyond NASA's current budget forecast.

Extending the life of the station, a $100 billion project of 16 nations that is nearing completion after more than a decade of construction, was a surprise finding of the presidential panel reviewing the U.S. human space program.

The study team's report was to be delivered to the White House this week but was not expected to be publicly disclosed until mid- to late-September.

The panel also said NASA's $18 billion annual budget, about half of which is spent on human space projects, falls about $3 billion a year short for Constellation, the moon-and-beyond exploration initiative NASA plans after it retires the space shuttle and station programs.

"NASA needs the ISS," program scientist Julie Robinson said. "A six-month stay on the space station is going to be the best analog we're ever going to have for a six-month microgravity transit to Mars in the future."

Scientists looking to develop countermeasures for radiation exposure, bone loss and other effects of long-duration stays in space estimate they will need to keep the station operating until at least 2020 to ensure "that next step beyond low-Earth orbit (will be) a safe step for humankind," Robinson said.

NASA plans to spend about $2.5 billion a year for space station operations through 2015.

Ending it just five years after its completion would rankle U.S. partners Russia, Europe, Japan and Canada, which have invested heavily in the program and are looking for payoffs, members of the Human Space Flight Plans Committee said during public hearings.   Continued...

<p>The Space Shuttle Discovery docked with the International Space Station in this image captured from NASA TV August 30, 2009. REUTERS/NASA TV</p>