Graham Warwick/WASHINGTON DC

NASA has launched a programme to develop technology for the human exploration and commercial development of space beyond low earth orbit.

The new initiative is intended to lead to the development of an in-space architecture enabling safe and affordable missions to high earth orbit and beyond. Examples of technologies required include efficient in-space propulsion and power systems and space habitats.

Conceived by NASA's Human Exploration and Development of Space (HEDS) enterprise, the HEDS Technology/Commercialisation Initiative (HCTI) has received initial funding in the US space agency's just-approved 2001 budget. The initiative involves systems analysis, concept development technology research and flight demonstrations in support of HEDS' plans to develop an in-space architecture in phases over the next 25 years, says programme manager John Mankins.

The near-term goal is to "fly the Space Shuttle safely and complete the International Space Station", Mankins says, while developing technology to enable missions of up to 100 days duration in "Earth's neighbourhood" - including a possible return to the moon - in 2010-2015. Challenges include reducing the costs of human missions beyond low earth orbit by a factor of five to 10.

The mid-term goal is to enable missions of 300 to 1,000 days duration, including initial manned sorties to Mars, by 2015-2020. Challenges include reducing the costs of human interplanetary missions by a factor of 10 below estimates of the 1990s.

The long-term goal of NASA's HCTI is to establish a foundation for the combined human and robotic exploration of space after 2020. The aim is to enable a sustained human presence in deep space or on the surface of Mars for durations of up to three years. Challenges include reducing the costs of interplanetary missions by a factor of 20 over 1990s estimates.

Initial funding is small - $10 to $20 million in 2001, but spending is set to ramp up after 2005.

Source: Flight International