- (AFP) -- After announcing his ambitious plans to send
manned missions to the moon and Mars, President George W. Bush has been
brought back down to Earth by doubts about how such a monumental project
can be financed.
- Bush called late Wednesday for a new space vessel capable
of traveling to the moon as early as 2015. But in terms of financing, the
space agency will have only an additional billion dollars at its disposal
over five years, in addition to its annual budget of 15.4 billion dollars.
- Traveling to Mars "is expensive and risky. The United
States may not spend the money this will take, or people may lose interest"
in the program, warned James Lewis, director of the Technology and Public
Policy program at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International
- Peter Wilson, a space exploration policy expert at the
Rand Corporation, conceded that it "will require a huge effort by
the administration to mobilize the public opinion over this. It's a 20-to-30-year
program, not a crash program like Apollo, that took only 10 years."
- As if attempting to demonstrate the feasibility of Bush's
dream, the US robot Spirit made its first steps on Mars overnight Wednesday.
But the two-robot rover mission, expected to continue for three months
on the Red Planet, cost just 820 million dollars.
- But the notion of manned missions to the moon and Mars
has also raised a host of other questions -- including what will happen
in the interim between when the space shuttle is phased out, as Bush has
called for, and when a new orbital space plane takes its place.
- "The program is a little confusing, because the
new vehicle is not ready before 2014 but the shuttle stops in 2010,"
- Asked about this four-year gap, NASA Administrator Sean
O'Keefe said that, although the shuttle has been grounded following last
year's space shuttle Columbia disaster, the International Space Station
crews are being transported to the station by Russian Soyuz rockets.
- "Our Russian partners have excelled at assuring
the flight of Soyuz spacecraft," O'Keefe said.
- He gave no details on the new space vehicle, answering
questions on the topic with a simple "We'll see." The orbital
space plane now being developed is not designed to go to the moon.
- Several experts stress that keeping the shuttle in service
until 2010 will be costly, with maintenance eating up a portion of the
budget that could be devoted to the new spacecraft.
- The shuttle programs "outlived their usefulness
and were just a black hole for money," Lewis said.
- Aside from the funding concerns, the United States could
also come up against some tough competition from other countries in reaching
for the moon and Mars, experts say.
- "Being passed by one of these countries would damage
US prestige. This might be enough incentive to actually get us back to
the moon and then to Mars," Lewis said.
- Several times in recent months, China has mentioned plans
to send people to the moon, and on Thursday Russia reacted to the US announcement
a day earlier by saying it had the know-how to relaunch its space exploration
- But convincing Congress to approve the budget will be
the real challenge. Bush's father, former president George Bush, had his
space hopes dashed in 1989, when Congress rejected his 20-year, 400-billion-dollar
plan for manned missions to the moon and Mars.
- "New financial resources will be hard to secure
from Congress," said Christian Beckner, project manager of CSIS's
Human Space Exploration Initiative.
- He added that "any reorganization of the NASA centers
will be difficult and will require a strong political commitment by the
- On Thursday NASA announced the organization's first changes
aimed at meeting the new goals.
- Retired admiral Craig Steidle was nominated to the job
of associate administrator, and will head a new office, the Office of Exploration
- The office is to "set priorities and direct the
identification, development, and validation of exploration systems and
related technologies," NASA said in a statement.
- The Office of Aerospace Technology will now be called
the Office of Aeronautics, reorganized "to reflect NASA's commitment
to aviation research and aeronautics technologies for the nation's civil
and defense interests," NASA said.
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