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Welcome to "Ask the White House" -- an online interactive forum where you can submit questions to Administration Officials and friends of the White House. Visit the "Ask the White House" archives to read other discussions with White House officials.

Sean O'Keefe
Sean O'Keefe
January 7, 2003

Sean O'Keefe
Hello all. I'm excited to have the opportunity to be here on Ask the White House. It sure is an exciting time at NASA and looking forward to chatting about it with you.

Martian Horizon. This is a portion of the first color image captured by the panoramic camera on the Mars Exploration Rover Spirit. Photo by NASA/JPL. Ben, from Wood Dale, Illinois writes:
I teach a 5th grade class and we have been recently studying space and specifically space travel. Our science book discusses how the human body is effected by extended space travel, and steps that astronauts take remain healthy during space travel.

My students were curious about how long people might live or travel in space without experiencing these health effects?

We've also been checking out the updates on the Spirit Rover on Mars which raised a very good question. How can the Spirit and Opportunity missions to Mars help us to know if we may ever send humans to Mars? Thank you for the chance to ask our questions

Sean O'Keefe
Dear Ben

Thanks for your very thoughtful question, and with your 5th grade class know that you are on the vanguard of inspiring the next generation of explorers, so thank you for what you do.

To your questions......the human body is profoundly affected by long duration of space travel. There is a curious physiological phenomenon that we can explain that both accelerates some cell growth and degenerates others, so after 6 months it is fairly typical for an astronaut, or cosmonaut, to experience a 10 percent degeneration of bone mass and 30 percent degeneration of muscle mass. And yet some protein cell growth accelerates for certain tissues and organs.

So as a consequence we have to understand those affects in order to make long duration of space travel for humans possible. And that is precisely what we are doing on board the international space station right now.

Astronaut Mike Foale and Cosmonaut Alexander Kaleri are aboard Expedition 8 working on just these kinds of experiments.

The rovers are precursor mission -- kind of an advance team -- to figuring out what the conditions are on the planet and once we figure out how to deal with the human effects, we can then send humans to explore in real time.

First 3-D Panorama of Spirit's Landing Site. This sprawling look at the martian landscape surrounding the Mars Exploration Rover Spirit is the first 3-D stereo image from the rover's navigation camera. A surface depression nicknamed Yar, from Toronto writes:
Why is the lifespan of the rover only 3 months, if its power source is the Sun?

Sean O'Keefe
Thanks for your insightful question. Indeed the battery systems on board Spirit are regenerated by the solar rays that are on the rover itself. And over the next 3 months it will be drawing most of the power in order to be mobile and to operate the mechanical instruments on board. But like any battery there are only so many times you can recharge it. We are hoping that we can get 6 - 7 months time out of it. But we will at least get 3.

Mars Exploration Rover (MER). An NASA computer generated image of what the Spirit rover would look like on the surface of Mars, before it starts taking rock samples with it's extendable arm. The NASA Spirit rover probe landed on Mars on Sunday, 04 January 2004, in search of signs that the planet was once capable of supporting life. Photo by NASA. SYED, from CHICAGO, IL writes:
Dear Mr. O'keefe Did you have any doubts if the landing mission "Spirit" would be successful or unsuccessful?

Sean O'Keefe
Yep, all the way up until the last minute! The margin between success and failure is always razor thin.

Rock Abrasion Tool (RAT). An NASA computer generated image demonstrating the Rock Abrasion Tool (RAT) on the rover's robotic arm. The RAT grinds away the rock's surface, allowing scientific instruments to analyze the rock's interior. Blake, from Tucson, Arizona writes:
The successful landing of Spirit and upcoming landing of Opportunity are great steps for NASA. But when do you think NASA will be at the point of regular interplanetary and manned flight; decades, centuries?

Sean O'Keefe
It is hard to say when we may be able to conduct regular interplanetary missions while the spirit and opportunity missions have a very heavy science content, there is a dedication to exploration and one of the things about exploration is you never know what you may find until you get there.

So it depends on what we learn on these missions and missions to come on how frequently we are able to do this -- depending on what we learn and whether we can develop the power and generation, propulsion capabilities necessary to get there faster and stay longer and potentially support humans in doing so.

First Color Image from Spirit. This is the first color image of Mars taken by the panoramic camera on the Mars Exploration Rover Spirit. It is the highest resolution image ever taken on the surface of another planet. Photo by NASA/JPL. Patrick, from Ohio writes:
Did NASA fake the Apollo record? Will a man ever be sent to the moon for real?

Sean O'Keefe
No, we didn't fake the Apollo record and there are 12 people who went there, did that and have the t-shirts to prove it. You can ask any of them.

First Color Image from Spirit. This is the first color image of Mars taken by the panoramic camera on the Mars Exploration Rover Spirit. It is the highest resolution image ever taken on the surface of another planet. Photo by NASA/JPL. John, from Washington State writes:
After Mars is study by robots Whats next for the space industry? Can we get a newer Space shuttle that would go further into space or hold large subparts for a large space station, or space ship factory in space to get further in space?

Sean O'Keefe
Hi John

Thanks for your question about next generation spacecraft. Indeed, we are constantly looking at new capabilities that would power us beyond the immediate orbit around earth, commonly called lower earth orbit. But 90 percent of the challenge in going anywhere is getting off the surface of the earth and out of the gravitational pull. So really rather than the spacecraft itself, are the power generation and the propulsion capabilities to get beyond our immediate neighborhood.

From the last two years, the President's program has included a very aggressive acceleration of research and development of power generation and propulsion technologies that we call project Prometheus -- named for the Greek god of fire.

Once we develop those capabilities that will unleash us from the current technology limits in order to go anywhere. So that is the primary focus that we are concentrating on.

Mars Exploration Rover (MER). A picture of a model of the Mars Exploration Rover taken on Sunday, January 2004, at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. Spirit is the first of two golf-cart-sized rovers headed for Mars landings in January. The Rovers will seek evidence about whether the environment in the two regions might once have been capable of supporting life. Photo by NASA /ARMANDO ARORIZO. Keith, from Charlotte, NC writes:
How much intelligence does the current rover on mars have in detecting and avoiding objects, and is there an average time in making and executing those decisions? Also, can the rover team give a point "A" to point "B" reference and allow the rover to decide on its route ?

Does the rover recover any of the material removed from rocks it will cut in examination ?

How deep into the surface can the rover look for water?

Sean O'Keefe
Thanks for your question. Indeed the Spirit rover is a pretty smart piece of machinery. It has been described by several press accounts I've read as being the equivalent of a robotic PhD geologist and that is probably not far from accurate.

It is capable of detecting and avoiding objects. It has a computing capacity to analyze the materials that it will be drilling for an extracting and give us data and readings about the content of what it discovered.

But it is robotic so it does need to be programmed every single day, the directions it moves and the objects it encounters is programmed in the night hours so when it is reactivated in the morning, it has a whole new program to pursue.

So yes in fact it does have a point of reference that will send the rover on its maneuver. We will be recovering materials removed from the rocks in terms of its content -- we will get the data and information about it.

But on some future missions, we will actually send sample returns to earth, but not this one.

First Look at Spirit on Mars. This mosaic image taken by the navigation camera on the Mars Exploration Rover Spirit has been further processed, resulting in a significantly improved 360 degree panoramic view of the rover on the surface of Mars. Photo by NASA/JPL. Rick, from Port Arthur, Texas writes:
The depression where the mars space craft Spirit landed could yield a readily accessible excavation of the mars soil. Is this where the search will start or will the mission team look else where first due to the spacecraft contamination introduction into the area?

Sean O'Keefe
The search will start pretty close to where Spirit landed now called Columbia memorial station. And the immediate soil around the area seems to hold particular interests to the scientists because it seems to appear to have the consistency of mud. And the only way you can have mud is to have some fluid substance around and that is what the mission is investigating -- whether there was water or some fluid on Mars at some time.

There are a number of other locations on the imagery that may make for interesting investigation as well -- the scientists are working through that right now. But they consider themselves to be like kids in the candy store trying to pick and choose what they do first.

Bevin, from Coral Springs, Florida writes:
Mr. O'Keefe, If we should speculate that life ever existed on Mars, what would be events or conditions that would result in the absence of life on the planet today?

Sean O'Keefe
This is one of the central questions we are trying to answer. Conditions on mars today do not appear to be hospitable for supporting life. But the geological patterns on the planet give us every indication that the atmosphere, the climate and the terrain might have been dramatically different some time ago, millions of years.

And so one of the mysteries that we will be examined is how did it change and most importantly why did it change? If we can answer this question -- it will tell us a lot about what is happening with our own solar system and how it is evolving.

Curt, from Bridgeport, CT writes:
What is the general confidence level among NASA staff that signs of previous life on Mars will be discovered on this mission?

Sean O'Keefe
Well, the honest answer is we just don't know. But we've come to realize that the essential ingredients to support life, hydrogen, oxygen and carbon, appear to have been present on this planet at some point. And if that is true, we'll see if the theory holds. That is part of what this mission is about.

Ifeacho, from KY writes:
My students are curious to know what benefit this will bring to the international community and not just USA.

Sean O'Keefe
First, thank you for what you do to help inspire the next generation of explorers. You are prompting your student's curiosity. This mission to Mars will have benefit not only to Americans to all humans. And the international community's interest in what we are learning is pretty extensive.

There are several international components that are onboard the Spirit rover operating right now. And we intend to widely share the information, the data and the knowledge that we are learning from this mission with all of the international partners we collaborate with in the space community so that the knowledge base in astronomy, astrobiology, geology, and astrophysics will be enhanced for all humankind.

Laurie, from Cape Cod, MA writes:
Good Morning and congratulations on the successful Spirit landing. I follow NASA's missions regularly and greatly appreciate NASA TV on the web. I am wondering if any thought has ever been given to having a NASA Radio set-up? Perhaps on World Band? I ask because my internet connection also ties up my phone line, and NASA Radio would be a great alternative. Again thanks to all of you for all your hard work; I have a teenage son, and NASA is one agency I greatly encourage him to hear about and be involved with. The astronauts, the science, and all of NASA are one of the last great role models for young men (and women) today.

Sean O'Keefe
Thanks for your thoughtful comments and great support on NASA TV. The audio feed for NASA TV is available and used frequently by a variety of radio stations around the country. while we don't have a dedicated NASA radio, it is regularly accessed by commercial and public radio. Thanks for encouraging your son to learn more about what we are engaged in because a good part of our mission is to demonstrate the application of math, science and technology in pursuit of the President's broader education agenda and to inspire the next generation of explorers.

Richard, from St. Louis, MO writes:
Is the mission to Mars for the Explorer Spirit merely a photographic mission or does it have the capability to actually analyze soil samples?

Thank You

Sean O'Keefe
Thanks for your question. Spirit and its companion rover Opportunity both have extensive imagery capability, but most importantly it has geological analysis capability as well. Early next week, when it begins to be mobile and starts to rove around the planet, it will be using a number of instruments to probe rock formations, the planet's surface and analyze the returns its picks up.

There are also valuable instruments aboard for analyzing the atmospheric conditions. To examine the full array of capabilities, log on to and you'll see it on the main page.

Janice, from Santa Maria, CA writes:
Will NASA engage students in the collection and or analysis of data from Spirit? If so, what role(s) will they play?

Sean O'Keefe
You bet. We are always anxious to engage students and kids in the work that we do. Encourage students to log-on to the web site and they will find a link to our education materials on space flight and interplanetary missions, the mars missions, and an interactive capability by joining the earth crew where they can receive regular updates and carry on conversations with scientists, engineers, and space flight folks.

so please tune in any time.

William, from Lincoln, Nebraska writes:
Wonderful success on the Rover Kudos all around on that mission. Considering that Earth's moon has abundant titanium ore (and an oxygen-free vacuum to refine the ore cheaply into elemental Ti) and one-sixth of Earth's gravity, what are the chances of putting two nuclear reactors (for redundancy) underground (for protection; those craters didn't come from a catalog) and a research and aerospace complex (also underground) around them? Such abundant electrical power on tap might make any scientist smile.

It seems like a fine construction and launching platform for a manned Mars mission sometime in the future. Tours of duty might be short to protect bone density. We put our flag there many years ago, maybe it's about time we did something with it. The cost would be staggering, but the potential benefits could be just as massive.

What do you think about such a concept?

Sean O'Keefe
Interesting concept, William; and you put your finger on it. In order to do any extensive missions we have to develop power generation capabilities beyond the solar electric systems that we are currently depending on. That is why the last two years running the President in his annual budget has provided funding for what we can Project Prometheus to develop power generation and propulsion alternatives by using both nuclear reactors as well as other conventional means . We can significantly diminish the volume required to support long duration space flight by traveling to destinations faster, getting there sooner and setting up power generation capabilities to support missions.

So you have an interesting concept and one we are trying to pursue and the cost, unlike what you suggested need not be staggering.

Sean O'Keefe
Thanks a lot. This was a lot of fun. And sure enjoyed the opportunity to chat about the really neat things we are doing at NASA.