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Bush to Propose Moon Base and Manned Mission to Mars

Times Staff Writers

President Bush will unveil a new American space initiative next week that is expected to include building a permanent base on the moon and later sending astronauts to Mars, White House officials said Thursday night.

The program, if it gains the political support to move forward, will represent the most ambitious and monumental space initiative since the Apollo program that landed Americans on the moon in 1969. The plan has been rumored for months and has gained both strong support and opposition within the space community.

White House officials were releasing few details of their plan, but the lunar base alone might not be completed until the next decade and the Mars landing would come later still, administration officials said. The Bush plan is expected to provide a comprehensive blueprint for NASA’s future.

The plan was put together in recent months during closed meetings by high-level administration officials, including NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe and Vice President Dick Cheney. Bush will outline the plan in a speech late next week, officials said.

Bush has wanted to inject new life into the space program since last year’s Columbia space shuttle accident that killed seven astronauts and raised troubling questions about the quality of NASA’s manned space efforts. The space agency is still trying to recover and does not plan to resume shuttle flights until late this year.

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Until now, Bush has avoided tying his presidency too closely to the space program, but the ambitious new proposal sends an important political message as he campaigns for reelection.

“The president is strongly committed to the exploration of space,” White House spokesman Scott McClellan told reporters aboard Air Force One as Bush returned to Washington from a fundraising trip to Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.

“In the immediate aftermath of the space shuttle Columbia tragedy, he made it very clear that our journey into space will go on,” McClellan said. “The president directed his administration to do a comprehensive review of our space policy, including our priorities and the future direction of the program, and the president will have more to say on it next week.”

Bush’s father had made a similar proposal for a lunar and Mars mission 14 years ago during his presidency, but it failed to gain political support and never received funding. After the elder Bush left office in 1992, the proposal was never raised again.

President Clinton’s major space initiative was to resurrect the space station program as part of an international effort with the Russians and other partners. It was unclear whether Bush would attempt to attract international partners for his new lunar and Mars programs.

The Bush plan, if it does include both lunar and Mars landings, would require massive industrial and technological resources. Experts said there was almost no way to gauge how much such an effort would cost, but it almost certainly would not be completed before Bush and even his successor were out of office.

The U.S. has not developed a new human spacecraft, other than the space station, since the space shuttle program in the late 1970s. Exactly what kind of ship would carry humans to the moon or Mars -- and whether it would be assembled in orbit or on the ground -- is an open question.

The Apollo program, which was a crash effort funded by a blank Treasury Department check, took eight years to land the first two men on the moon. A new effort to visit the moon could take at least that long, said John Logsdon, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University and a member of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board.

Logsdon said Thursday that Bush’s plan had been widely anticipated and was expected to set a major goal like a Mars mission. He lauded the broad outlines of the plan, saying, “If we are going to expand beyond Earth’s orbit, this is the logical progress that we need to make.”

Logsdon said a permanent base on the moon would clarify whether it is technologically and economically viable to inhabit the moon.

A moon base, even if not economically justifiable, would be an important first step to a Mars mission and provide a research outpost, not unlike the ones on Antarctica. Water in the lunar soil could help sustain human activity on the celestial body.

“There is lots we have to learn before we go to Mars,” Logsdon said.

Before a Mars trip, NASA must learn more about how well humans could withstand a long space voyage. Such research is planned for the space station, once that $100-billion outpost is completed.

But other space advocates see a lunar mission as an unnecessary step that will only further delay space exploration. After sending 27 Americans and 60 spacecraft to the moon, they say little more can be gained by more lunar visits.

“A program that returns us to the moon and bogs us down, the same way the space station has bogged us down in low Earth orbit, would be terrible,” said Louis Friedman, executive director of the Planetary Society. “But a program that would put all systems go on moving us to another world would be wonderful. So it all depends on what they propose and how they construct the program.”

Friedman said Bush needed a much broader base of political support for such a massive effort and that, by planning the initiative in secret, he now faced a more difficult job of building that support in Congress over the next year.

Apart from the new initiative, NASA is facing many critical issues in coming years. Improving the safety of the space shuttle is proving far more difficult than the agency imagined through much of last year. And under the recommendations set down by Columbia accident investigators, NASA must recertify the basic safety of its aged space shuttle fleet by 2010, a costly and technically daunting task.

If it decides not to recertify the shuttle, it would retire the remaining three orbiters. In the meantime, NASA is accelerating development of a new space plane that would shuttle astronauts, but not cargo, to the space station. It hopes to have that system at least partly operational by 2010.

Congress has been lukewarm at best about the space plane, which could cost up to $10 billion and still leave major questions about how NASA would launch heavy payloads into orbit and conduct servicing operations pioneered by the shuttle.

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Vartabedian reported from Los Angeles and Reynolds from Washington.


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