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Scientists ponder next 50 years of space exploration

NASA holds two-day conference to look at the last--and next--50 years in space exploration.

PASADENA, Calif.--In the next 50 years of space exploration, scientists are hopeful that we will find other life in the universe.

Weeks away from the 50th anniversary of space flight, a group of aerospace engineers, space entrepreneurs and astronauts met here Thursday at the California Institute of Technology to reflect on the past and discuss the coming 50 years of space exploration.

The two-day conference, called 50 Years in Space, is marked by the Soviet Union's launch of Sputnik on October 4, 1957. Harrison "Jack" Schmitt, astronaut and former U.S. senator, called that event an "intellectual earthquake" for science and the first trigger of interest in space. To be sure, the United States formed NASA in November of the following year; and in 1961, President John F. Kennedy promised that Americans would land on the moon by the end of the decade. On July 20, 1969, Apollo 11 landed the first man on the moon.

More than that milestone, early space flight paved the way for decades of technological innovation and scientific discovery and brought about a multibillion-dollar space industry. Scientists believe that new technology and knowledge about the universe will easily push us further in the years to come.

"The first 50 years have given us a new view of the physical places in the universe, new knowledge; and obviously new technology was essential," Ed Stone, director emeritus of NASA's research center, the Jet Propulsion Lab at Caltech, said during a morning keynote speech.

"An unexpected diversity in the universe has given us a new view. That diversity promises that there is so much more to be discovered and beckons us to expand new frontiers into space."

Paul Dimotakis, chief technologist at JPL and professor at Caltech, added that considering that all of the matter on Earth comprises only 4 percent of what's in the universe, "the next 50 years may well reveal (whether) we have company."

Stone named five frontiers of space: physical, knowledge, technology (developing the capability to travel to space), human and applications. "In the last 50 years, we've made remarkable progress in exploring and pushing those frontiers," Stone said. He gave some examples of new views of the universe brought about by work in those areas. Through the Cassini mission to Saturn, for example, scientists have seen plumes erupting from the surface, posing the question, "Where is this energy coming from?" Stone asked.

In another example, the Mars rover mission, which landed in 2004, has yielded findings from crater bedrocks that . "Here on Earth, wherever you find water you find life," he said.

Gentry Lee, chief engineer for the JPL's Planetary Flight Systems Directorate and a science fiction author, said the changes in his profession as space engineer during the past 50 years have been dramatic, especially considering there was no such profession when he was a child.

He attributed one of the biggest changes to computers. At the beginning of the space program, for example, all simulations were done through hardware. Now, 99 percent of flight simulations are done through software, he said. For the , for example, the team might have run simulations of entry and landing on Mars all night on a mainframe computer. Now it would take "10 minutes on my desktop," said Lee, who worked on the Viking project for 12 years.

"Where the computer has been a magnificent tool, there is a downside, too," Lee said. "Often the people using the computer programs didn't have a hand in building them, so we as engineers must remember that the computer and processes are tools there to guide us, and not the engineering substance itself."

The one common denominator between now and 50 years ago, he said, is the human factor. "The right processes, tools and computers are not enough, you must have the right people who can tie it all together and reduce the risks," Lee said.