NASA channels Newt Gingrich, proposes plan for using space station for Mars...

NASA channels Newt Gingrich, proposes plan for using space station for Mars mission


Officials at the U.S. space agency NASA are putting forth a proposal that seems more based on myth than reality, saying Tuesday that the International Space Station may serve as a launching pad for missions to Mars.

NASA said Tuesday that consideration is under way to use the space station as a dry run for a simulated trip to and from Mars. The space agency, which has faced a series of substantial spending cuts in recent weeks, has yet to put forth a proposal for a mission to Mars, however it is currently engaged in sending its largest and most advanced robotic probe to the planet.

NASA’s space station program manager Mike Suffredini said before astronauts can fly beyond low-Earth orbit, they will have to spend more than six months aloft at a time, the typical period for space station crews. No NASA astronaut has spent more than seven months in space on a single mission, according to NASA officials.

“Clearly, in order to be able to explore beyond low-Earth orbit, we’re going to have to stay in orbit for longer than six months,” Mr. Suffredini said in a statement.

The ISS could serve as a test of human endurance in space. The current endurance record for humans is 14 months, and  was set by a Russian cosmonaut aboard the Mir space station in the mid-1990s. Only two others — both Russians — have spent as long as a full year in space.

Scientists working in coordination with NASA has warned that astronauts will likely have to engage in a series of tests in an effort to prepare for the six-month mission to Mars. Once there, astronauts are likely to face a barrage of environmental hazards, including increased exposure to radiation.

Still, one thing is for certain: the mission is not coming any time soon.

“It won’t be in the near future,” said Mr. Suffredini . “It’s probably not reasonable to expect us to be able to do this sooner than two or three years from now.”

The proposal comes as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Republican presidential candidate, has put forth a proposal for building a base on the moon. Speaking earlier this year, Mr. Gingrich said he would seek to provide funding for the moon base, which would serve as a similar launching pad for missions to Mars.

That said, the latest proposal is far from certain. The U.S. space agency is facing a series of spending cuts, which includes reduced funding for future missions to the Red Planet.

Among the missions under target includes the first attempt that would have sent an orbiter to measure gases in the Martian atmosphere. The mission, which would search for evidence of methane, could reveal whether Martian microbes are present on the planet.

Another planned mission, slated for launch in 2018, could return actual soil samples from Mars back to Earth for close-up study. Under the current budget, the prospect of bringing Martian rocks to Earth is likely pushed to the mid- or late-2020s, according to NASA scientists.

Now speeding away from Earth, NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory and its Curiosity rover aim to land on the red planet next August. The primary goal of the $2.5 billion mission is to see whether cold, dry, barren Mars might have been hospitable for microbial life once upon a time — or might even still be conducive to life now. No actual life detectors are on board; rather, the instruments will hunt for organic compounds, NASA officials said.