Will Russians And Americans Fly To Mars Together?

MarsRussian Experts do not doubt that it can really happen. The cost of the Russian Martian project is estimated at 10 billion dollars.

In the United States a special commission set up by the White House has started its work. It is to inform President George W. Bush by February 2004 how the Americans are to prepare for manned flights to other planets during the next 20 to 30 years.

Fairly concrete Russian plans for interplanetary flights appeared in May 1962, when the Soviet "Lunar Program" was launched. Since then scientists, using the materials collected during long flights on board the Salyut and Mir orbital stations, have elaborated several entirely new programs of interplanetary flights.

Of all the planets in the Solar System, Mars attracts the greatest interest of scientists in both countries, and in the whole world for that matter. Because the surface of Mars is covered with a thick layer of ice, which does not rule out the presence of forms of life, even if elementary ones.

The scientists working in the Antarctica have managed to revive microorganisms that had spent about 2,800 years under the 19-meter layer of ice in Lake Vida. If bacteria are capable of surviving in such extreme conditions, then there is hope that living organisms can exist in other parts of the Solar System. And if it is possible to reveal traces of life on other planets, then the modern theory of an extraterrestrial origin of life on Earth will be given a powerful incentive for further research.

However, the national Martian projects in Russia and the U.S. come up against definite obstacles, which can be easily overcome if the efforts of the two main space powers are combined.

Strange as it may seem, the main obstacle in the way of the U.S. program of a flight to Mars is the International Space Station (ISS), which requires great organizational and financial efforts. Today, owing to the Russian Soyuz and Progress spaceships, it has become possible to stabilize the ISS program. The station continues to operate in the piloted regime, the only possible one for it, despite the fact that after the U.S. Columbia crash many skeptics in the U.S. and Russia predicted its inevitable temporary closing down. Nonetheless, it is still a long way to the normal work of the ISS, and the U.S. will have to concentrate on this program in future as well.

But not everything is OK with the U.S. Mission to Mars in technical terms either. One of the main problems confronting interplanetary flights is the choice of a propulsion system for spaceships. To use the existing rocket engines is the same as to develop the Wild West in wagons, NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe admitted.

However, the electric-nuclear engine, working on the basis of plutonium-238 decay, needs much improvement and all-round testing. And, of course, it is hard to guarantee 100-percent safety of the crew and the spaceship with a nuclear reactor on board.

Another problem is that U.S. astronauts are not experienced enough, compared with their Russian colleagues, in creating life-support systems for long flights and conducting assembly in outer space. NASA plans to start expeditions by using the ISS lasting 500 to 1,000 days only beginning with 2012, while Russian cosmonaut Valery Polyakov spent a record-long time in orbit - 437 days - way back in 1995.

However, the Russian space program suffers from one but substantial shortcoming - chronic lack of funding. But for all that, the capability of Russia's cosmonautics is so great, that it allows it to elaborate and confirm experimentally tested projects of interplanetary manned flights.

In 2000 the Energia corporation, the leading Russian space agency, completed the design of a Martian Piloted Orbital Station MARPOST. This station, weighing about 400 tons, consists of several main elements - the crew compartment, the propulsion system, the solar batteries and the automatic landing module. The latter is to deliver samples of Martian soil to a station in orbit.

The flights of MARPOST, which have been waited for for more than two years, require maximum reliability of a spaceship's engine. A prototype of such a propulsion system has already been created in Russia and is used effectively on communication satellites. Reference here is to the electrojet engine, which operates due to an outgoing flow of Xenon gas particles charged in an electrostatic field. MARPOST uses a few hundred such relatively small engines bound in "honeycombs," which increases the station's reliability still more. In the opinion of Leonid Gorshkov, a leading designer of the Energia Corporation, "as regards a possibility of equipment failure, a MARPOST crew is faced with a risk smaller than during flights to a near-Earth orbit."

The sum of 10 billion dollars named by Russian experts is half of the required spending on the U.S. Mission to Mars. And if the efforts of the two countries are combined, a Russian-American crew will command a MARPOST landing module to start its descent in a decade.

Andrei Kislyaklov, RIAN

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Author`s name Petr Ermilin