In the aftermath of the Columbia shuttle disaster, investigators asserted that NASA’s space-flight program was floundering, without any clear goals or future vision.
The initiative President Bush is set to unveil next week -- which is expected to call for building a moon colony and undertaking a manned Mars landing -- could answer a question that long has vexed the space program: Why should the nation spend billions of dollars every year to put humans in space?
Following the successful and popular Apollo moon program, NASA developed the space shuttle and then began building the international space station, under rationales that failed to ignite strong support in the science and technology communities.
At various times, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration justified its work by touting the ability to perform zero-gravity science experiments, develop commercial products in space or cheaply launch payloads, among other things. Those rationales largely have been discredited.
The idea of a Mars or moon mission is not new. Advocates of space exploration always have considered them the key long-term goals, and the justification for such a massive effort remains the expansion of human presence beyond the known world -- an instinct as old as the human race.
The value of the Bush administration proposal is likely to be judged not by the idea itself, but by whether it can create the political and financial support needed to make the program real.
“Bush can talk the talk, but he has to come up with a plan that generates something besides artwork,” said John Pike, an expert on space issues. “He has to come up with a plan that is politically and financially sustainable.”
White House officials have withheld many details of the plan and have made no public statements, deferring until Bush makes his widely anticipated speech next week. But the initiative already has sparked strong debate, even within the ranks of space-exploration advocates.
A manned moon or Mars mission could be a tough sell to the general public, coming at a time when the federal government is heavily in debt and facing massive investments needed to modernize the electrical grid, improve crumbling highways, build new universities and many other items crucial to U.S. economic competitiveness. The U.S. Treasury is expected to sustain a $480-billion deficit this fiscal year, and rack up annual deficits of $1.4 trillion between now and 2008.
“We have not experienced such severe budget deterioration in so short a time period since World War II caused the nation’s defense budget to grow sharply,” said Robert Greenstein, director of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a Washington-based think tank. “Given these looming deficits, there is no money available in current or future budgets for the expensive new space endeavor.”
But supporters of the initiative brush aside such concerns, saying the effort will not be unduly expensive and that it is essential to U.S. technological leadership.
“Setting up operations on the moon is affordable, as long as it is taken as a primary goal for the American space program and not larded onto all of the other things that NASA does,” said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach), chairman of the House subcommittee on space and aeronautics. As an example, he cited NASA’s efforts to assess global warming, saying: “Over the years, we have spent tens of billions of dollars of NASA money proving global warming is occurring, which I think is suspect and debatable.”
After the Columbia accident in February, many critics questioned the entire foundation of the human space flight program, arguing that robotic spacecraft could more effectively, safely and economically explore the solar system in future years. Bush has closed the door on that argument.
“The president’s decision is that we are not taking man out of the picture, which is the right decision,” Rohrabacher said in an interview Friday.
When Bush’s father was president, he proposed a Mars and moon mission but made little effort to recruit political support for the idea. At that time, NASA produced a series of cost estimates, some of which called for spending $20 billion a year for 20 years. The sticker shock alone doomed the program.
This time around, the president may not elect to put his goals into a formal and sharply defined timeframe, avoiding the entire cost issue. Congressional sources said Friday that Bush’s plan might differ from the version that has leaked out of the White House.
Rohrabacher said the initiative might be achieved with a 5% annual increase in NASA’s current $15-billion annual budget. By phasing out the shuttle as quickly as possible, NASA could free up money for the new effort and regain the confidence that once characterized the agency, he said.
“This lack of strategic vision has been very hurtful to the space program,” he said. “The president’s goal is a challenge to this generation to set up operations on the moon and a challenge to the next generation to move on to Mars. As long as it is done in a responsible financial way, it will have the support of Republicans in Congress -- even at this time of high deficit spending.”
But some aerospace analysts remain doubtful the program will go forward.
“It’s absolutely lunacy,” said Marco A. Caceras, senior space analyst for the Teal Group, an aerospace research firm based in Fairfax, Va. “We’re not going to have a moon presence anytime in the next 20 years, and we’re certainly not going to have a man go to Mars in our lifetime.”
He criticized the Bush administration for even floating the idea amid a number of space issues that need to be resolved, including returning the space shuttles to flight and completing the international space station. “It’s extremely irresponsible to even pose the question when we haven’t even sat down with Congress for the current manned space program,” he added.
Space purists, however, never question that within a lifetime, human footprints will be left on Mars.
“The challenge is to come up with a plan big enough to have forward momentum, without being so expensive to be dead on arrival,” Pike said. “It will play itself out in slow motion, and incrementally advance human presence in space. This human space flight thing is an intelligence test, a test to see if there is intelligence on Earth. It is an expression of the confidence in our society.”
Vartabedian reported from Los Angeles and Shogren from Washington. Times staff writer Peter Pae in Los Angeles contributed to this report.