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Destination: Mars--This time, a reason for optimism.
TCS ^ | 01/22/2003 | Glenn Harlan Reynolds

Posted on 01/22/2003 5:26:59 AM PST by SJackson

NASA

Recent reports from the Los Angeles Times and Space.com indicate that President Bush may announce a spectacular new Mars initiative, aimed at putting humans on Mars by 2010. Having been through this with a previous President Bush, who announced similar plans only to see them shot down, interestingly enough, by the maneuverings of NASA bureaucrats, I confess to a bit of skepticism. But there's reason to think that this time it could work.

One reason for optimism is that this time around cost, and technology, have gotten a lot more thought. Nuclear propulsion is at the forefront this time - back then, it was a political non-starter. It's possible to go to Mars using chemical rockets alone, but just barely. Using nuclear space propulsion - where a reactor heats gases to form high-speed exhaust rather than using chemical explosions to do so - cuts travel times from six months to two, and, because of better specific impulse (efficiency), allows for higher payloads. (There are no plans, as far as I know, to use Orion-style nuclear-explosive propulsion, of the sort I've written about href=http://techcentralstation.com/1051/defensewrapper.jsp?PID=1051-350&CID=1051-091102C>here, and here. Should I turn out to be wrong about this, it will probably be a sign that somebody somewhere is very worried about something.)

The United States experimented with nuclear propulsion as part of the Kiwi and Nerva projects in the 1960s and early 1970s. The results were extraordinarily promising, but the projects died because, with the United States already abandoning the Moon and giving up on Mars, there was no plausible application for the technology. Nuclear propulsion is mostly useful beyond low-earth orbit, and we were in the process of abandoning everything beyond low-earth orbit.

That appears to be changing, and it's a good thing. It has certainly won praise from the Mars Society, whose President, Robert Zubrin, calls the Bush decision a "tremendously positive step. It will greatly enhance the prospects for human exploration and settlement of the Solar System." He's right about that, and like him, I think that the "settlement" part is as important as the "exploration" part. And while exploration is possible based on chemical rockets alone, settlement without using nuclear power will be much more difficult.

Of course, as this article by Ken Silber notes, nuclear space propulsion has had its critics and opponents for years, though weirdly their opposition stems largely from fears that it will lead to "nuclear powered space battle stations." This isn't quite as weird as Rep. Dennis Kucinich's legislation to ban satellite-based "mind control devices," but it seems pretty far down the list of things we should be concerned about. With worries about earthbound nuclear weapons in the hands of Iraq, North Korea, and perhaps assorted terrorist groups, it's hard to take seriously claims that possible American military activity in space, spun off from civilian Mars missions, might be our biggest problem. Indeed, the whole concern about "space battle stations" has a faintly musty air about it, redolent of circa-1984 "nuclear freeze" propaganda. Who would we fight in space today? Aliens? And if we needed to do that, wouldn't nuclear-powered space battle stations be a good thing?

Nor are environmental concerns significant. Space nuclear reactors would be launched in a "cold" (and thus safe) state, and not powered up until they were safely in orbit. And again, compared with the environmental threat caused by rogue nuclear weapons, their dangers seem minuscule.

We also have to weigh the dangers of not acting. Earth, as we have seen, is an increasingly dangerous place. Some years ago I attended a small workshop on high-technology terrorism, focusing on such future threats as bioterror, abuse of nanotechnology, and so on. As we left the room after one session, another participant remarked "I think I just became a fan of space colonies."

She was right. Many of the threats posed by advanced technologies are, for the most part, manageable. But in the aggregate, they are significant. And the increasingly small Earth is, as I have written here before, too tiny and too fragile a basket for all our humanity's eggs.

The administration's Mars proposal is at least a step in the right direction, and its adoption of nuclear space propulsion indicates more realism than the flags-and-footprints approach favored by the previous Bush administrations. What's more, the use of nuclear propulsion, which makes interplanetary travel both cheaper and faster, greatly increases the likelihood of going beyond flags and footprints to true space settlement. It's about time.


TOPICS: Culture/Society; Editorial; Government
KEYWORDS: space
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1 posted on 01/22/2003 5:26:59 AM PST by SJackson
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To: SJackson
I pray that this is true! GO W!
2 posted on 01/22/2003 5:34:12 AM PST by Constantine XIII
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To: Brett66; SJackson
Ping for your space list.

There has been a great deal of buzz about nuclear propulsion and a Mars mission here at the Johnson Space Center. I'll take this a good sign that the administration is serious about this.
3 posted on 01/22/2003 5:36:18 AM PST by The_Victor
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To: Constantine XIII
The need for nuclear propulsion on this mission means that this trip could not possibly be launched by NASA. In the long run, this will be a good thing. Imagine what the settling of the West would have looked like if it had been entirely a government operation.
4 posted on 01/22/2003 5:37:31 AM PST by BlazingArizona
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To: SJackson
Call me nuts but I strongly support such a project.

We've got to get off this rock and expand our horizons.
5 posted on 01/22/2003 5:37:38 AM PST by DB ()
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To: SJackson
This is good news. It is humanity's destiny to control the stars and this is the first step.
6 posted on 01/22/2003 5:38:47 AM PST by Sparta (Statism is a mental illness)
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To: Constantine XIII
Oh please God don't let it be a multi-national project!

Let's do ourselves!
7 posted on 01/22/2003 5:40:12 AM PST by DB ()
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To: DB
Where did the "it" go...
8 posted on 01/22/2003 5:41:06 AM PST by DB ()
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To: SJackson
It seems that W is a futurist. He sees things in the long term of things. Not the short term of things. I'm glad I voted for him!
9 posted on 01/22/2003 5:41:18 AM PST by KevinDavis (Marsward Ho!)
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To: SJackson
What folks don't seem to understand is that human beings carry sin with us wherever we go - onto the internet, which initially was a neutral environment, and now is permeated with porn and other crap, as well as constantly being overrun by some new "virus" - and to Mars, where future colonies would only reflect the character of the founders - namely, human beings. Only with God are new creations possible that won't be overcome by sin.

But it's a cool idea anyway. As a kid I read Ray Bradbury voraciously, and have always believed we'd go to Mars someday.

10 posted on 01/22/2003 5:43:07 AM PST by ncpastor (secret agent against the gates of hell)
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To: SJackson

It's possible to go to Mars using chemical rockets alone, but just barely.

Not true. A manned mission to Mars using chemical rockets is very possible and always has been. What has been lacking is the political will to do so.

11 posted on 01/22/2003 5:47:01 AM PST by Burkeman1
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To: DB
Let's do ourselves!

Careful...
You'll go blind. :)

12 posted on 01/22/2003 5:53:56 AM PST by The_Victor
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To: SJackson
Orion. A big(!), thick, hemisphere with a battleship on top. Light off a nuclear bomb underneath, and, voila!

Now THAT would be something to watch as it launched!
13 posted on 01/22/2003 5:56:15 AM PST by Mr. Thorne (...who has read too many Niven and Pournelle novels.)
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To: DB

Oh please God don't let it be a multi-national project!

Let's do ourselves!

I suppose we can take the Brits and Japanese along...

14 posted on 01/22/2003 5:57:26 AM PST by Chemist_Geek ("Drill, R&D, and conserve" should be our watchwords! Energy independence for America!)
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To: Chemist_Geek
Rock Hudson's already been there.
15 posted on 01/22/2003 6:02:23 AM PST by Eric in the Ozarks
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To: SJackson
Mars and lunar colonization BUMP!!
16 posted on 01/22/2003 6:03:21 AM PST by aruanan
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To: SJackson
The future of mankind is in space. It is the nature of man to always venture past the horizon. And while the EnviroNasis want to take us back to the stone age, The Prez wants to take us into the future.

I can envision new nations being founded among our Solar planets. Who will be the founding fathers of those, I wonder?
17 posted on 01/22/2003 6:04:44 AM PST by Search4Truth (The future is out there.)
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To: Sparta
Beginning space colonization could rejuvenate American civilization... the thing is it won't be able to act as a safety valve( the way the Old West was) for that many people, as a martian colony (when in probably 30 or 40 years we get the technology to support one as of now the logistics just aren't possible, hydroponics and some ability to generate oxygen could make such a colony self succficient) will not be able to support a large mass of people not initially anyway. Most likely Mars would be used as a base of operations for mining the Asteroid belt. I reccomend we tackle the moon 1st and work to develop the neccasary science and technology in lightsails, artificial gravity( probably the most difficult as the science is not well understood), robotic probes, terraforming etc. Then expand outward through the solar system.
18 posted on 01/22/2003 6:05:09 AM PST by weikel
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To: SJackson
The meek shall inherit the Earth. The stars belong to the bold.
19 posted on 01/22/2003 6:05:53 AM PST by Junior (Insert tag here =>)
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To: SJackson
The administration's Mars proposal is at least a step in the right direction, and its adoption of nuclear space propulsion indicates more realism than the flags-and-footprints approach favored by the previous Bush administrations.

First, I'm aware of only ONE "previous Bush administration" (from 1989-1993). Second, it's simply not true that G.H.W. Bush favored a "flags and footprints" approach. One of the things that killed SEI (his Moon-Mars Initiative) was that it intended to do precisely what this guy wanted -- make nuclear rocket engines and establish permanent footholds on both the Moon and Mars. That's why the Democrat Congress killed it.

20 posted on 01/22/2003 6:10:39 AM PST by Cincinatus
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To: ncpastor
Only with God are new creations possible that won't be overcome by sin.

What book was it where I read about God creating the world and everything in it? Started with a "B", the chapter started with "G".

21 posted on 01/22/2003 6:19:02 AM PST by CurlyDave
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To: weikel
A major question for the future of Mars colonization is the effect the low gravity will have on the colonists? Will people born on Mars ever be able to visit Earth after having grown up on a planet with a third of the gravitational force of Earth? Imagine going to a planet with a gravitational force three times greater than Earth's? Would we even be able to walk ten steps or stand up for more than a few seconds? Some futurists speculate that while Mars may be mined and utilized it will be done largely by robots and other automated processes. Humans will actually live in the orbit of Mars in giant revolving "cylinder" cities (artificial gravity) and at most commute to Mars for work or pleasure for short periods. Unless some sort of way can be figured out to lesson the detrimental health effects of low gravity (other than the impratical solution of three hour exercise sessions every day) I don't see permanent settlement ever on Mars (terraformed or not).
22 posted on 01/22/2003 6:20:01 AM PST by Burkeman1
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To: Burkeman1
Thats why artificial gravity is so crucial... even a few weeks exposure to zero G dramatically decreased astronauts muscle mass. Its not good for humans medically to be very far outside of earth gravity range of 9.8 N*m/(s^2).
23 posted on 01/22/2003 6:23:20 AM PST by weikel
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To: Cincinatus
That's why the Democrat Congress killed it.

That was a large political error on their part.
Those with guts enough to go to the wilderness and make it on their own would be conservatives.
That would reduce the numbers of conservative voters here, thus increasing the commieRATs percentages in elections.
If the new colonists send in absentee ballots, the Rats can spoil,
lose, or ignore them, as they do to US Military absentee ballots.

24 posted on 01/22/2003 6:23:20 AM PST by ASA Vet (I keep forgetting to change my tag line.)
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To: Mr. Thorne
...who has read too many Niven and Pournelle novels....

Yep - Footfall was the first thing that came to my mind, too...

25 posted on 01/22/2003 6:25:52 AM PST by Alex Murphy
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To: weikel
I hope whatever ship they design with this new propulsion system has either a centrifuge habitat space or is a "tethered" design- both could produce artificial gravity.
26 posted on 01/22/2003 6:26:22 AM PST by Burkeman1
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To: Burkeman1
Station and ship artificial gravity isn't so much of a problem there can be a rotating habitation area to produce that. For a permanent land colony you need "real"( ie generated by some sort of device that has yet to be invented) artificial gravity.
27 posted on 01/22/2003 6:33:41 AM PST by weikel
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To: SJackson
Is nuclear exhaust power like the recent deep space probe "ion engine" that appeared to be highly successful???

Inquiring minds want to know!

28 posted on 01/22/2003 6:34:12 AM PST by aShepard
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To: weikel
I am not sure that will ever be possible. The amount of energy needed to produce such a field would be approaching the astronomical.
29 posted on 01/22/2003 6:37:51 AM PST by Burkeman1
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To: SJackson
All your planet are belong to us. I'm sorry...but it was just a matter of time until someone else did it...
30 posted on 01/22/2003 6:40:57 AM PST by renosathug
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To: Sparta
Absolutely. Let the meek inherit the Earth: the Bold are going to the Stars. . . .
31 posted on 01/22/2003 6:41:33 AM PST by Salgak (don't mind me: the orbital mind control lasers are making me write this. . .)
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To: weikel
I think the spirit of the old west is what we need..said it several times on this forum

Without a challenge we tend to stagnate and wither...the opening of space( a long process to get mars established) is just the infusion that we need.

Hehehe one day they will break from us as we did the brits.......could be a glorious time to live through.

As an aside I'd train to go as soon as they asked.....the old pilot in me:)

32 posted on 01/22/2003 6:47:54 AM PST by Kakaze
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To: Kakaze
Hehehe one day they will break from us as we did the brits.......could be a glorious time to live through.

Not nessacarily I think when they get more self sufficient they should be given a charter of internal automony within the American/Earth space Empire. A total break is neither inevitable or desirable.

33 posted on 01/22/2003 6:50:11 AM PST by weikel
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To: weikel
My comment was not really about revolution but more like evolution..........

The "kids" on Mars leave the nest and change how we all do things ; and all the while they are strong allies.

34 posted on 01/22/2003 6:52:39 AM PST by Kakaze
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To: aShepard
Is nuclear exhaust power like the recent deep space probe "ion engine" that appeared to be highly successful???

I don't think so. The ion engine has too low of an impulse - it's slow and steady propulsion, but humans aboard would die of boredom before reaching anywhere. I think the nuclear reactor heats reaction mass to the point of vaporization, after which it gets squirted out the back of the rocket.

35 posted on 01/22/2003 6:54:08 AM PST by Chemist_Geek ("Drill, R&D, and conserve" should be our watchwords! Energy independence for America!)
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To: Salgak; Sparta
I think ill be the prudent financer who gets rich and lives back on Earth and ends up owning space( ill be the bad guy in holomovies of a shane type plot in a few hundred years).

The bankers followed us out west
And did in mortgages invest
And looked ahead and shrewdly planned
And soon they'll have our Martian land.
36 posted on 01/22/2003 6:54:25 AM PST by weikel
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To: dennisw; Cachelot; Yehuda; Alouette; Nix 2; veronica; Catspaw; knighthawk; Optimist; weikel; ...
If you'd like to be on or off this middle east/political ping list, please FR mail me.
37 posted on 01/22/2003 6:54:26 AM PST by SJackson
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To: SJackson
bttp
38 posted on 01/22/2003 7:35:13 AM PST by Kakaze
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To: The_Victor; RightWhale; gcruse; anymouse; RadioAstronomer; NonZeroSum; Cincinatus' Wife; ...
Thanks for the ping.
39 posted on 01/22/2003 7:52:20 AM PST by Brett66
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To: Alex Murphy; Mr. Thorne
"...who has read too many Niven and Pournelle novels...."

That would be impossible.

Yep - Footfall was the first thing that came to my mind, too...

Mine,too. Hell of a good book!

40 posted on 01/22/2003 7:58:46 AM PST by sneakypete
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To: Chemist_Geek
I think the nuclear reactor heats reaction mass to the point of vaporization, after which it gets squirted out the back of the rocket.

Right you are! See here:

VASMIR- the full name is the Variable Specific Impulse Magnoplasma Rocket.

This rocket uses radio waves to heat the fuel to 10 million degrees and because this system lacks electrodes it is less likely to break down. Also, this rocket is unique because it has the best of both worlds, high exhaust speed and high thrust. “VASMIR bridges the gap between high- and low-thrust systems.”(7) This is possible because it uses a magnetic choke to constrict the flow of propellant from the central heating chamber. This allows the pilot to the low gear and possible a booster rocket to escape Earth’s magnetic field and then switch to high gear for intersolar travel.

Thrust: Low Gear: 1,200N High Gear: 40N Exhaust Speed: Low Gear: 10kps High Gear: 300kps

Nuclear reactor is used to heat the plasma.

41 posted on 01/22/2003 7:59:20 AM PST by MarketR
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To: MarketR
VASMIR = VASIMR
42 posted on 01/22/2003 8:05:22 AM PST by MarketR
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To: SJackson
AAAARGGH!!!! Is this Reynolds guy a syndicated columnist? If so, he's an embarassment! While Nuclear Propulsion is a nice prospect for high-powered rocketry, it is NOT what NASA is focusing on. Nuclear-Powered propulsion is different from Nuclear propulsion, but the latter method is neither as efficient or as safe as the former. This Reynolds thinks the latter is what is being proposed, and it will drive the environuts through the roof to read his misguided info.

Nuclear Propulsion in a Nutshell: Blow exhaust gasses over a very hot nuclear pile or reactor core. Very hot and usually quite radioactive gasses spew out of the system, moving very quickly. Not normally considered an environmentally-friendly way to do things when it is working right, even worse in an explosion or mishap. The advantage of such systems is the ability to launch from the ground, since you've got the immediate power to do so.

Nuclear-Powered propulsion in a Nutshell: Using Radio-Thermal Generators (RTG's) or enclosed reactors to produce electrical energy, which is then used to power plasma or ion engines to produce very clean thrust. The RTG's in particular are very safe and low in radioactivity, and the reactors can be similiarly safe by sending the reactor components for in-space assembly only. The word "nuclear" will still put off the die-hard anti-nukers, but only in an irrational way.

Reynolds didn't even pay attention to what the NASA press releases have said on this issue - he just threw his expectations into the mix and regurgitated what he THOUGHT he read. Shoddy, shoddy reporting!
43 posted on 01/22/2003 8:10:04 AM PST by Frank_Discussion
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To: MarketR
VASIMR uses ELECTRICAL ENERGY to basically microwave the plasma to whatever energy is required. It can be from any source, but nuclear reactors are the most power-rich, with RTG's following next in line. A Nuclear Reactor does NOT heat plasma - It would only provide electricity to power the system.
44 posted on 01/22/2003 8:17:52 AM PST by Frank_Discussion
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To: Chemist_Geek
The ion engine has too low of an impulse - it's slow and steady propulsion, but humans aboard would die of boredom before reaching anywhere.

See the VASIMR susbject in this thread. Both Ion and VASIMR-type are slow-acceleration systems, that's certainly true. However, I'd wager that a "chemical-rocket-then-coast-to-Mars" mission would be much more boring, since it would take a lot longer to get there. Another thing that many folks don't realize about the Ion/VASIMR systems is that you have a way to abort pretty much the whole way there. With chemical systems, whatever basic speed you've attained initially is what speed you're going to travel at, and usually you've exhausted the huge bulk of your fuel. Beyond a certain very early point in such missions, you're SOL for an abort.
45 posted on 01/22/2003 8:24:19 AM PST by Frank_Discussion
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To: Frank_Discussion
A Nuclear Reactor does NOT heat plasma - It would only provide electricity to power the system.

You are right and so am I! The reactor does not heat the plasma directly, but drives the microwave generators which do ! So, in actuality, we are both right.

46 posted on 01/22/2003 8:30:41 AM PST by MarketR
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To: MarketR
Just trying to clarify, not to argue. The reason I am so persnickety about this issue (as may have gleaned from ny rant above) is that the environuts think all nuclear-powered systems are big green-glowing about-to-go-into-meltdown explosion magnets. This isn't the case, and in the particular case we're discussing, the power source is not directly connected to the thrust chamber or its products. It is actually less contaminating that the Space Shuttle, which is quite clean in itself.
47 posted on 01/22/2003 8:36:52 AM PST by Frank_Discussion
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To: Kakaze
Cna't wait to share this with my 15-year-old son who has said "forever" that he wants to be the "first man on Mars!"(Smile)
48 posted on 01/22/2003 8:38:18 AM PST by lyby (stay-at-home mom)
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To: Frank_Discussion
Clarification understood and appreciated. I certainly don't want to help foster the notion of a "great radioactivity spewing rocket"

And, on a re-read of my post, I was falling into it.

Thanks for the edit. :-)

49 posted on 01/22/2003 8:42:00 AM PST by MarketR
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To: Frank_Discussion
Now...Can we try to do something about this news released today?

"Senate Recommends $200 Million Cut To NASA's 2003 Budget"

50 posted on 01/22/2003 8:44:59 AM PST by MarketR
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