Bush charts new course to moon, beyond

President proposes Crew Exploration Vehicle

`A new focus' for NASA

Cost for next five years estimated at $12 billion

January 15, 2004|By Frank D. Roylance and Michael Stroh | Frank D. Roylance and Michael Stroh,SUN STAFF

Calling for a new era of space exploration to lift the nation's spirit, President Bush proposed yesterday a bold new agenda for NASA that would carry humans back to the moon by 2020, and from there on to Mars and beyond.

"We will give NASA a new focus and vision," the president said. "We will build the new ships to carry man forward into the universe, to gain a new foothold on the moon and prepare for journeys to other worlds."

To get the explorers there, the president proposed specific goals and new spending priorities for a reorganized space agency that many critics say had lost its focus. They include:

Completing the International Space Station by 2010, followed by retirement of NASA's three remaining space shuttles -the only existing U.S. vehicles that can reach the station.

Replacing the shuttles with a new, still-undefined "Crew Exploration Vehicle" that would lift astronauts into space by 2014.

Landing robots on the moon by 2008, followed by a return of human crews to the lunar surface as early as 2015, "with the goal of living and working there for extended periods of time."

With the moon as a stepping stone, the president said, humans would then set off to follow their robots "to Mars and to worlds beyond."

Bush did not set a timetable for a manned mission to Mars. NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe said that would depend on NASA's progress in the earlier stages. Key problems include the development of advanced power generation and propulsion systems, and solutions to the long-term biomedical problems associated with weightlessness and exposure to radiation.

The president's goals will be detailed in a Feb. 3 budget message to Congress, and they will not be cheap.

In his 22-minute address yesterday to an enthusiastic audience at NASA headquarters in Washington, Bush called on the agency to reallocate $11 billion dollars from within its $86 billion spending plan for the next five years.

The administration will also ask Congress for $1 billion more in new funds, spread over the same five-year period - an increase of about 5 percent per year over current spending. Thereafter, O'Keefe said, the budget increases would track with inflation, about 3 percent annually.

Footing the bill

Some lawmakers greeted the president's initiative with enthusiasm - but most also wondered how the nation would foot the bill, and how changing priorities would affect existing programs and NASA centers.

Paul Spudis, a lunar scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory and author of The Once and Future Moon, pronounced the president's plan "reasonable."

"We now have strategic direction, something we haven't had since Apollo," he said. "Clearly, the strategic value of the moon has finally been realized. "

But other space experts aren't sure how NASA can scrape together $11 billion for the new project in the coming years while still supporting the shuttle and space station.

"Its going to be a real trick," said Michael Duke, the first NASA curator of moon rocks, now a researcher at the Colorado School of Mines. "There are going to be a lot of people who are unhappy about the decisions that have to be made."

The president called on O'Keefe to review all space agency activities and direct them toward the new goals.

Michael Hauser, deputy director of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, which manages the Hubble Space Telescope, said that if the new proposal damaged NASA's astronomy or other scientific missions, "it would be a great step backward."

Stamatios M. Krimigis, head of the APL space department, said it would be a "terrible mistake" to scale back NASA's robotic missions. But he doesn't expect the new scheme to affect existing APL work.

"Gone are the days where people get excited by astronauts jumping around in weightlessness," Krimigis said. "Now the public wants more substantive accomplishments."

Krimigis said missions like the current one with the Mars rover, as well APL's robotic missions to Mercury and Pluto, provide that substance. "But in politics, one never knows," he said.

Role for robots

The president said his new objectives include a continuing "trail-blazer" role for robotic spacecraft, such as the Spirit rover now operating on the martian surface. But he argued that the human search for knowledge can't be satisfied by pictures and data alone.

"We need to see and examine and touch for ourselves," he said. "We do not know where this journey will end, yet we know this - human beings are headed for the cosmos."

NASA will face plenty of scientific and engineering challenges if the president's proposals gain traction.

Bush called for the first unmanned test flight of the Crew Exploration Vehicle by 2008 - just four years from now. Yet some experts said that goal is feasible.

"It's not going to require some totally alien technology," said Brian J. Cantwell, chairman of the department of aeronautics and astronautics at Stanford University.

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