No men on Mars New space policy: President charted different course while U.S. woman set space record.

September 27, 1996

THE EARTH that astronaut Shannon Lucid returned to yesterday was not the same one she left 188 days before. The old Earth included a United States that had boldly committed to sending a man to Mars by 2019, a very expensive proposition.

While Ms. Lucid was in space President Clinton shifted policy from that set by his predecessor, George Bush. No longer is the stated goal of NASA a manned flight to Mars, though that remains a more distant possibility. The emphasis will instead be on safer and less costly robotic missions through the solar system.

Disregarding the irony of his timing, Mr. Clinton announced he preferred robots to humans for space exploration a week ago, even as he praised the woman who has set a new record for longest space flight by an American.

Ms. Lucid returned to Earth aboard the shuttle Atlantis, which picked her up after she completed her record-breaking stint aboard the Russian space station Mir. Under the new Clinton policy, there may be few manned U.S. missions other than similar shuttle flights leading to development of the space station.

NASA didn't seem too upset by the announcement. It has been dealing with steadily shrinking budgets for several years and probably never took seriously Mr. Bush's bold proposal that would cost $500 billion. Space agency spokesman Alan Ladwig said Mr. Clinton's policy shift "supports the track NASA has been on." Even pop astronomer Carl Sagan's Planetary Society, which howls every time NASA's budget is cut, praised the new policy as a commitment to go to Mars, albeit by robot.

Two robot ships, Pathfinder and Global Surveyor, are scheduled for launch later this year, with Pathfinder actually landing on the planet next Independence Day. Those previously planned missions show Mr. Clinton's shift in space exploration policy won't drastically change what NASA is already doing.

Impacted more could be the Defense Department, CIA and other intelligence agencies that now will be required to work more closely on space-related spy activities. By placing the nation's emphasis on robot missions to Mars and beyond, the president isn't just being thrifty. He is challenging the notion that U.S. LTC space exploration depends on manned (or womanned?) flight to maintain public support.

Pub Date: 9/27/96

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