NASA unveils future space exploration plans at conference

HOUSTON Since February, NASA study teams have been looking at the best ways to implement the President Barack Obama's vision for space exploration. They've come up with some initial stepping stones that they hope will create this game-changing technology, as the president has called it. On Wednesday, we got a first glimpse of that, as hundreds of participants from NASA, the aerospace industry and academia took part in a two-day conference at Moody Gardens in Galveston.

Among the "flagship" technologies NASA has unveiled for the first time was an animation showing how it would like to create a sort of gas station in space. It's a way for vehicles to dock and fuel up, allowing them to be lighter and easier to blast off from earth.

"The less you have to launc, the farther you can go with your dollar," said Laurie Leshin of NASA.

NASA also has designs for an inflatable module to send to the space station. Again, the idea being it would take up less space and weigh less than such conventional hardware sent to space. Other plans include researching and developing heavy-lift propulsion engines, advanced solar electric propulsion, and better entry, descent and landing technology.

These are ideas NASA is considering as stepping stones that could ultimately lead to technology that gets them to Mars, and they want to know what others in the aerospace community think.

"To get ideas from outside the agency, we've been spending the last few months studying these concepts and putting together a point of departure plan," said Leshin. "But now it's really time to open it up to a much broader community to get input."

That's not all NASA is asking for opinions on. With the space shuttle retiring later this year, they want to know what private industry and academics think about plans to use a commercial vehicle eventually to taxi astronauts to the space station. Planning for all this is really in its infancy. Costs and timelines can only be generalized.

Some are already criticizing it as nothing more than rhetoric.

"They are doing some planning behind the scenes, but certainly not enough detail planning, in my mind," said Bob Mitchell of the Bay Area Houston Economic Partnership.

Many aren't willing to criticize the plans because they stand to benefit from those plans if the budget and the president's vision for space are approved by Congress. It's a decision on that isn't expected until the fall.

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