Human flights to Mars still at least 15
years off: ESA head
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[June 23, 2016]
By Maria Sheahan and Ashutosh Pandey
DARMSTADT, Germany (Reuters) - Dreaming of
a trip to Mars? You'll have to wait at least 15 years for the technology
to be developed, the head of the European Space Agency (ESA) said,
putting doubt on claims that the journey could happen sooner.
"If there was enough money then we could possibly do it earlier
but there is not as much now as the Apollo program had," ESA
Director-General Jan Woerner said, referring to the U.S. project
which landed the first people on the moon.
Woerner says a permanent human settlement on the moon, where 3D
printers could be used to turn moon rock into essential items needed
for the two-year trip to Mars, would be a major step toward the red
U.S. space agency NASA hopes to send astronauts to Mars in the
mid-2030s and businessman Elon Musk, head of electric car maker
Tesla Motors, says he plans to put unmanned spacecraft on Mars from
as early as 2018 and have humans there by 2030.
The ESA's Woerner said it would take longer.
A spacecraft sent to Mars would need rockets and fuel powerful
enough to lift back off for the return trip and the humans would
need protection from unprecedented physical and mental challenges as
well as deep-space radiation.
Woerner would like to see a cluster of research laboratories on the
moon, at what he calls a "moon village", to replace the
International Space Station when its lifetime ends and to test
technologies needed to make the trip to Mars.
That could be funded and operated by a collection of private and
public bodies from around the world, he said in an interview at the
ESA's Operations Centre.
"There are various companies and public agencies asking to join the
club now, so they want to do different things, resource mining, in
situ research, tourism and that kind of stuff. There is a big
community interested," he told Reuters.
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Monitors are pictured in the main control room of the European Space
Operations Centre (ESOC) in Darmstadt, Germany June 17, 2016.
"The moon village is a pit stop on the way to Mars," Woerner said,
adding that new 3D printing technology could be used to build
material and structures out of rocks and dust, doing away with the
cost of transporting everything needed for a mission.
"To test how to use lunar material to build some structures, not
only houses, but also for a telescope or whatever, will teach us
also how to do it on Mars," he said.
The ESA, working with Russia, in March sent a spacecraft on a
seven-month journey as part of the agency's ExoMars mission, which
will use an atmospheric probe to sniff out signs of life on Mars and
deploy a lander to test technologies needed for a rover scheduled to
follow in 2020.
Woerner said Europe was looking at ways to lower the cost of
launches but did not plan to copy Elon Musk's SpaceX, which is
trying to develop relatively cheap, reusable launch vehicles.
"We should not copy. To follow and copy does not bring you into the
lead. We are looking for totally different approaches," Woerner
said, adding the ESA was examining all manner of new technologies,
including air-breathing engines that do not need to tap into oxygen
from a spacecraft's tank.
(Additional reporting by Reuters TV; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)
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