The nation's space agency said Tuesday it will take what could become the first step toward sending people to Mars.
NASA tacked on to a future robotic science mission five experiments specifically designed to pave the way for human exploration of the Red Planet. NASA will launch two robotic probes to Mars in 2001, with one of them landing on the surface and attempting to make a small amount of rocket fuel from the Martian atmosphere.
If the project works, future missions could combine Mars' carbon dioxide atmosphere with hydrogen to make fuel, probably methane, along with oxygen and water. Making fuel on Mars _ eliminating the need for a gas tank big enough for a round-trip _ would cut fuel-carrying costs by 40 percent.
The process of converting the atmosphere to fuel works in Earth-based labs, but no one knows if it will work on Mars.
"This will provide the information to tell us: Can we (fly people to Mars) affordably? And can we do it safely?" said Carl Pilcher, NASA's chief of long-range space science planning.
While NASA considers how a human Mars mission could be accomplished, it's up to the White House to decide if one should be launched, Pilcher said.
NASA already had planned to launch a Martian orbiter and a Martian lander with a rover from Cape Canaveral in March and April 2001. The rover would collect rocks and soils for a later probe to return to Earth. The lander was only supposed to eject the small roving car, Pilcher said.
Five experiments _ totaling $14-million _ were added to the lander. The fuel-conversion project alone costs $6-million.
One of the experiments will measure radiation levels that astronauts would be exposed to en route to Mars, circling Mars and working on the planet's surface. The other experiments look at how Martian dust and soil would affect life-support systems, how a spaceship could use the Martian atmosphere to slow down and how to land precisely.
It's much like the way NASA explored the moon in the mid-1960s before the Apollo lunar landings, said Lewis Peach, NASA's advanced projects director for human exploration.
Plans to send humans to Mars have never gone anywhere in the past. In 1989, President George Bush proposed a massive space-exploration program, including flights to the moon and Mars, that would have cost up to $500-billion. It died quickly.
Last August, NASA scientists announced that they found signs of life in a meteorite that came from Mars, reviving Mars fever. Then the White House released a space policy plan that specifically eliminated references to human flights to Mars.
Last year, NASA Administrator Dan Goldin asked engineers at Johnson Space Center to come up with a blueprint on how to go to Mars for $25-billion or less. So far that group has pared the cost down to $30-billion to $50-billion, said mission analyst Kent Joosten. That's based on making rocket fuel on Mars.