A step back to the moon, a giant debate for America

Bush's ambitious plan is generating excitement and even more questions

January 10, 2004|By Frank D. Roylance, Dennis O'Brien and Michael Stroh | Frank D. Roylance, Dennis O'Brien and Michael Stroh,SUN STAFF

If President Bush wanted to get America talking by leaking word of a plan to send astronauts back to the moon and then on to Mars, it worked.

The trial balloon had scientist and citizen alike asking hard questions: How much would the decades-long project cost? What kind of new hardware would it require? Is the science worth the money? And will the American people be willing to foot the bill?

Politicians, policy experts, space fans, astronomers, geologists and engineers were excited but cautious in light of the project's huge price tag, today's huge federal budget deficit and the uncertainties of election year politics.

After all, many recalled, the current president's father issued an identical challenge back in 1989, but no one ever put up the money.

"You can sense in the community that there is great excitement about the moon again," said Maria T. Zuber, a geophysicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. But she added, "I don't know how this will shake out as far as the budget deficit."

Word of the president's plan was released to reporters aboard Air Force One Thursday night. Details won't be available until next Wednesday, but officials said the plan for moon and Mars expeditions came from a working group headed by Vice President Dick Cheney.

The panel wanted to develop new goals for NASA after an investigation of last February's Columbia disaster criticized the space agency for losing its focus.

If a United Press International report proves accurate, the president will call for substantial NASA budget increases to develop new spacecraft and systems to take astronauts back to the moon by 2013 - after an absence of 41 years.

NASA would replace its 20-year-old space shuttle fleet and scale back its commitment to the oft-criticized International Space Station once the moon landings began.

Existing NASA programs that don't support the moon-Mars effort would also be scaled back or scrapped. The lunar expeditions would be focused on developing technologies to reach Mars, beginning with orbital reconnaissance missions in preparation for human landings.

The total price tag would be enormous - hundreds of billions of dollars, including $800 million next year, with increases of 5 percent to NASA's $15 billion budget each year after that.

But several experts said there is no way to know how long it might actually take - or how much it would cost.

Bruce Mahone, director of space policy for the Aerospace Industries Association, said developing a single Saturn rocket like the one that powered Apollo would cost roughly $50 billion today. A single lunar lander module would cost another $35 billion. And that's just for starters.

"If you tell the average guy it's so a scientist can go to the moon and look at rocks, forget it," said Haym Benaroya, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Rutgers University who has studied lunar base design for more than a decade. "It has to be sold as something that's good for all of society."

The political downfall of the International Space Station, he said, is that it was sold as an orbiting laboratory, and it has struggled to find its scientific niche ever since.

A long-term project such as a lunar base could inspire a new generation to pursue careers in science and engineering, Benaroya predicted, much as Apollo did for an earlier generation.

But not everyone is willing to sign up.

"Why do we have to measure progress by how much we put human beings in harm's way? We're taking a step back here," said Robert Park, a University of Maryland physicist and researcher.

He said the increasing sophistication of robots, remote cameras and telescopes leave little rationale for risking lives in space.

"The last thing we need is a manned program. It provides very little science, at a very high cost," he declared. "Machines are doing very well on Mars."

But scientists and engineers are sure a manned lunar base is technically feasible. "We did Apollo, so we should be confident that we could create similar technology again," said Wendell Mendell, manager of the Office for Human Exploration Science at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston.

But the challenges will be formidable, experts say, and require everything from new construction tools to new launch vehicles.

In that light, using the moon as a stepping stone for manned flights to Mars makes sense, said John Logsdon, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University and a member of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board.

First, he said, it's closer - a three-day journey compared with the six-month trip to Mars. And it's convenient: "It will give us experience in living long periods of time in space, we can test out whatever hardware is developed and if anything goes wrong, we can get them back fairly quickly."

But other deep space advocates worry that NASA will get bogged down on lunar soil.

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