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  Sunday, November 1 2:46pm PST

Saatchi & Saatchi
Anyone for a Trip to Mars?
Public space travel could come sooner than you think, says space expert Donna Shirley

Donna Shirley

Human colonization of Mars could be possible as early as 2030, the former leader of the recent Mars mission believes.

Donna Shirley was the manager of the Mars Exploration Program and the original leader of the team that built and put on Mars the Pathfinder and the Sojourner Rover in July last year. Pathfinder and Rover have sent images of Mars back to earth, measured the chemical composition of rocks and soil and set up a weather station.

In an interview at the State of the World Forum in San Francisco on Saturday (Oct.31), Ms. Shirley said the management of the $260-million project was the pinnacle of her career.

"We were very successful. It was one of the most successful projects we've ever had. Its goals were relatively modest, but the cost was relatively modest too. So from the standpoint of what was promised for the money, it far exceeded its promise."

Mars: Return flights in two decades?

Ms. Shirley retired from the Mars Exploration Program and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory last August and now runs her own company called Managing Creativity.

But leaving the project hasn't ended her involvement with Mars. She has been working on an educational initiative called the Mars Millennium Project, which is due to be launched in December. The project will ask elementary school children to design a community on Mars, looking at how such a community would survive in Mars' hostile environment. The goal is for the children to learn a little about how to improve their own communities and how make our own environment more sustainable, Ms Shirley said.

Ms. Shirley said the recent trip by former Ohio senator, John Glenn (77) into space on Thursday (Oct 29) was "basically a public relations stunt" that would also provide valuable scientific insights. " It is good to study the effects of aging in space and how an older body reacts to weightlessness, but it is also a signal that they [NASA] are opening up space to civilians."

In 1962, Mr. Glenn became the third American to go into space and the first man to orbit the Earth.

Ms. Shirley said opening up Mars to civilians was another step towards space becoming more accessible to the average person. She expected the space industry to take off.

"Space is starting to make money now. The telecommunications industry is making money like mad, and remote sensing will start making money in about 10 years, probably. There are five companies right now which are spending private money to build launches for real rockets, and if that succeeds, competition could bring the costs of launching right down."

As for when Mars could be either colonized or become a desired destination for the more adventurous frontier-pushers, Donna Shirley said it was not that far away, as long as space travel turned out to be economically viable.

"An early guess is 20 years for rich people to get to go, and another 20 for it to become generally sustainable. Mars might have resources we don't know about yet. It has an atmosphere and if you can find the various elements you need you could set up a colony there much easier than you could on the moon, which has no atmosphere."


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