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EDITIONS
 Tuesday, 31 December, 2002, 11:47 GMT
Space: money is the final frontier
Orbiting earth is the most any astronaut can do at the moment

It was a bad year for the space business.

Far fewer satellites were launched than had been hoped and all the major manufacturers have cut costs and jobs.

Against this background, the future for human space flight is once again being questioned.

No astronaut has gone beyond orbiting the earth since the end of the Apollo moon programme in the 70s.

At the moment America's space agency, Nasa, is touting the International Space Station as a stepping stone to space - both for science and business.

But a stepping stone to where?

Shuttle replacement

At the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida, shuttle launches fail to grab the headlines as they once did back in the 60s when America's President Kennedy challenged the Soviet Union to a space race.
Astronaut Story Musgrave
Story Musgrave doubts Nasa can deliver soon

After the Apollo programme, the shuttle was supposed to bring down the cost of getting into space.

It has not turned out that way and Nasa is now considering a replacement for the shuttle.

At the rocket engine specialists Rocketdyne at Canoga Park in California, programme director John Vilja is hoping to have some initial results by 2006.

"We're working on engines for two-stage orbit vehicles," he says.

Doubts remain

The technology required to make a single-stage orbit vehicle needs more investment than the agency can currently afford.

The number one priority is low-cost reliable access to space

Story Musgrave
Nasa wants to cut the cost of getting into space to one-tenth of current prices.

If it could do that, then opening up space to businesses would become a realistic proposition.

But veteran astronaut Story Musgrave doubts whether Nasa will be able to deliver.

"It's not a matter of how much money - it's want you want to do with it," he says.

"The number one priority is low-cost reliable access to space - we knew how to do business in the 60s, we don't in the new millennium," he adds.

Next objective

Despite this, many in the space industry have now set their sights firmly on Mars.

Daniel LeBlanc, operations manager for the Kennedy Space Centre visitor complex, sees his job as getting people enthusiastic again about the "final frontier".

"Those of us who live and breathe the space programme like I do, and hoping someday to go to Mars, it's like a mission from God to get people inspired," he says.

Nasa has yet to prove they can explore Mars in a realistic way

Tim Furniss, Flight International

In Russia, scientists are already considering the possibility of a six person trip to Mars as early as 2015.

Sergei Gorbunov, spokesman for Russia's space agency Rosaviakosmos, thinks people are always going to be searching for new worlds.

He believes there will be international co-operation because of the billions of dollars such a mission would cost.

But to make it worthwhile, any trip would have to be more than just so-called flags and footprints - something more than just a quick visit.

Tim Furniss of Flight International doubts such a long mission would be practical.

"We just don't have the technology at the moment to actually support a human crew on a nine-month visit to Mars," he says.

"The other problem is that Nasa has yet to prove they can really operate and explore Mars in a realistic way," he adds.

Given the cost, no human trip to Mars is going to happen soon.

For now, earth orbit is the furthest any astronaut is going to go - the planets will have to wait.

  WATCH/LISTEN
  ON THIS STORY
  The BBC's Tim Bowler
"Given the cost, no human trip to Mars is going to happen soon."
See also:

26 Dec 02 | Science/Nature
22 Nov 02 | Business
23 Sep 02 | Science/Nature
18 Sep 02 | Science/Nature
25 Jul 02 | Science/Nature
27 May 02 | Science/Nature
20 Dec 00 | Science/Nature
13 Sep 00 | Festival of science
05 Jul 02 | Science/Nature
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