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Companies, nonprofits share visions for space exploration

JAKOB RODGERS Updated: April 12, 2013 at 12:00 am 0

The sales pitch went something like this: Organize an unprecedented mission to Mars.

Do it without any ability to abort.

Then hurl that spacecraft back into the earth’s atmosphere at a raging 13.2 kilometers a second.

“We were all rather, well, extremely skeptical,” said Taber MacCallum, then the co-founder of a company specializing in space life support systems.

His hesitation didn’t last long.

At a time when budget woes continue to cloud NASA’s future, nonprofit organizations have begun to make inroads into the field of deep space travel. For MacCallum as well as a small group of engineers and one audacious multimillionaire, the proposed missions offer a glimpse what the future of space travel and exploration might look like.

Philanthropy may play an increasingly important role in future space missions.

“It’s a maturation of the industry, really,” said MacCallum, who now works on the Mars mission.

“That wasn’t true 10 years ago, because you had to develop so much from scratch.”

The plans for the mission were outlined last week at the 29th National Space Symposium — garnering particular attention in the ever-crowded space industry gathering.

Private companies have made forays into space travel — competing for NASA funding to build the agency’s next astronaut transport vehicle and developing private spacecraft for space tourism.

Virgin Gallactic, for example, has booked hundreds of tickets for future flights to space, according to the company’s website

The stir caused by visions of such endeavors, and in particular by new nonprofit ventures, offered a respite from the cloud of fiscal uncertainty that overshadowed much of the elaborate conference.

No one from NASA spoke at the symposium, nor did many top-ranking officials from the Defense Department make the trip to The Broadmoor hotel.

Each absence was a by product of automatic budget cuts that took effect March 1 for fiscal year 2013, which cut $16.6 billion from NASA’s budget and $41 billion from the Pentagon’s coffers. One effect of those cuts has been reduced travel funding.

The leaders of one nonprofit — the B612 Foundation — credited the federal government’s ever-present fiscal uncertainty for its own leap into space travel.

The foundation aims to launch a spacecraft in 2018 that would orbit the sun while scanning the solar system for asteroids measuring at least 140 meters in diameter — objects known as “city-killers.”

The goal: Detect threats to earth so that future missions could nudge those asteroids out of the way.

It is a project built largely off technology that’s already been developed — specifically, the Kepler spacecraft, which was built by Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. to search for earth-sized planets elsewhere in the universe.

That technological base has been the key to allowing private companies and nonprofits to enter space, said Scott Hubbard, a Stanford University professor and the project’s architect.

Most importantly, it keeps costs down, he said. The mission is expected to cost $450 million. So far, the foundation has raised $2 million.

“This way of doing things is a model for those missions in the future where you don’t have to appeal to a huge technology development,” Hubbard said.

The same could be said for the Inspiration Mars mission, which is slated to launch Jan. 5, 2018.

The mission is expected to rely largely on research and technology adopted from the International Space Station while it sends two people — a man and a woman — on a 501-day trip to within 100 miles of the Mars surface.

The spacecraft wouldn’t land. Rather, it would use the planet as a slingshot to shoot back to earth.

Dennis Tito, the project’s founder, said Thursday he plans to fund the project’s first two years. After that, he expects to look to private donors and sponsorship deals.

He got the idea, in part, after watching NASA’s missions flag in recent years.

After its shuttle fleet retired two years ago, the agency began purchasing seats on Russian rockets to get its astronauts to the International Space Station. Tito did the same thing — becoming the first “space tourist” by purchasing his own ticket aboard a Russian rocket.

NASA also has struggled to find a clear goal for space travel in recent years, alternating between visions for the visits to the moon and Mars.

The most recent idea floated by the White House would send an unmanned spacecraft to an asteroid, lasso it and tow it near the moon, where astronauts would explore the space rock.

Obama proposed $105 million in his fiscal year 2014 budget to jump-start the program, which may eventually cost about $2.6 billion.

“At the beginning of the space race, we all had a can-do spirit,” Tito said. “As far as the current situation is concerned, it’s quite a bit different.

“...we need to do something more innovative to excite the public — and the Congress to provide additional funding eventually for further Mars exploration.”

One of the few men in the world who could relate to Tito’s dreams sat in the front row during Thursday’s Inspiration Mars discussion.

Before Tito spoke, Buzz Aldrin — who in 1969 became the second man ever to set foot on the moon — struck a cautiously optimistic tone.

“Did Lindberg fly across the Atlantic?” Aldrin said before the panel discussion. “Government didn’t fund him. It was a prize, but it was commercial.

“And sometimes commercial leads. A lot times the government leads and turns it over to the commercial. As long as they don’t waste resources.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Contact Jakob Rodgers: 476-1654

Twitter @jakobrodgers

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