Scientists take issue with Bush space plan

Congress hears objections to Moon and Mars trips

March 11, 2004|By Gwyneth K. Shaw | Gwyneth K. Shaw,ORLANDO SENTINEL

WASHINGTON - As lawmakers continue to weigh whether to support President Bush's vision for space exploration, outside experts raised questions about it yesterday.

The five who spoke to the House Science Committee support a new vision for NASA but disagree about whether sending astronauts back to the moon before looking to other destinations - a key element of the plan Bush unveiled in January - is a good idea.

Donna Shirley, a former manager of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory's Mars exploration program, said going to the moon could become an expensive diversion.

"My contention is, there's almost no commonality between Mars and the moon that will justify the expenditure necessary to go to the moon," Shirley said.

Michael Griffin, a former top NASA official now in the private sector, said going back to the moon, a three-day trip from Earth, makes sense.

"The value of being on the moon is learning how to live on the surface of another planet," he said.

It would be "an act of technical hubris" to think that going straight to Mars is even possible, Griffin said.

Shirley and others members also questioned whether plans to retire the space shuttle fleet about 2010 - after the International Space Station is scheduled for completion but before U.S. participation drops off - is smart, given that NASA won't have a new spacecraft ready before at least 2014.

"My only concern is, you can retire the shuttle, but what are you going to do then," Shirley said. "If you do, you'd better have something else in mind, or else you're giving up the station."

Amid some of the technical questions, Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, the New York Republican who is the committee's chairman, steered the conversation back to whether NASA's budget projections will allow paying for at least the early stages of the Bush initiative.

The agency is counting on $1 billion in new funding over the next five years, with an additional $11 billion for the initiative coming from programs that are being reshaped.

Griffin, who estimated the cost of getting to the moon under NASA's projections at about $50 billion, said he thinks a moon mission could be accomplished for about $30 billion and a trip to Mars for about $130 billion.

But in the current fiscal climate - with even defense spending a potential target for cuts on Capitol Hill - there might be no increases for space exploration.

"Money is not easy to come by, and we have to consider all areas of science," said Boehlert, who, like many of his colleagues, remains undecided about the space initiative.

Although a delay might not scuttle the proposals, at some point the pressures of scheduling, money and the content of missions will force a decision, said Lennard Fisk, a former NASA official who is now a professor at the University of Michigan and chairman of the National Academy of Science's Space Studies Board.

"I think this is the issue that you face: If the budget situation of the nation is such that it's not possible to give NASA the request the president has asked for, then you are setting the pace," Fisk said.

"At some point, the pace becomes unacceptable, with no progress. The only way this is going to happen, in practical terms, is if we have, in each congressional cycle, some sign of progress."

The Orlando Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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