Image: Moon mission
In this artist's conception, robots and humans work together to transform the moon into a 21st-century hub for science and a jumping-off point for deep space missions.
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updated 12/4/2003 8:17:19 PM ET 2003-12-05T01:17:19

Despite widespread speculation that a major presidential announcement on space is at hand, White House spokesman Scott McClellan told reporters Thursday that President Bush has no plans to make any policy announcement about the U.S. space program “in the near future.”

Space.com
SPACE ENTHUSIASTS and White House watchers have been speculating for weeks that Bush would announce a major new space initiative in a speech at Kitty Hawk, N.C., in December to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Wright brothers’ historic flight.

Speaking at the daily White House press briefing, McClellan said that while the president strongly supports the U.S. space program, no policy decisions would be made before the conclusion of an interagency review of U.S. space priorities.

“Several months ago the president initiated an interagency review of space exploration to determine the appropriate future course of U.S. space exploration activities. ... That review is ongoing,” McClellan said.

When asked specifically about a possible speech in Kitty Hawk, McClellan said “there are no plans for any policy announcement in the immediate future, including upcoming speeches.” And while it is widely anticipated that Bush will speak in conjunction with Wright brothers commemoration celebrations, McClellan noted: “We don’t announce [presidential appearances] this far in advance.”

Rumors that an American return to the moon is in the offing gained more credence when the New York Post put an Apollo-era moonwalker on Thursday’s front page, emblazoned with the provocative headline “BACK TO THE MOON: Prez to Launch New Mission.”

WHISPERS AND RUMORS

For weeks, the buzz from sources both inside and outside NASA is that President Bush will use the Dec. 17 festivities marking the Kitty Hawk flight to re-energize the space agency by proclaiming a far-reaching agenda.

But there is growing doubt among some space policy insiders here that space will warrant much more than a passing mention in Bush’s highly anticipated — but still unannounced — speech at Kitty Hawk. White House spokesman Allen Abney said Dec. 4 that the president’s schedule typically is not made public more than a week in advance.

“I don’t think they are far enough along at the present time to announce a major new program” like a return to the moon, said Robert Walker, a prominent Washington lobbyist and former congressman picked by the White House to chair the Commission on the Future of the United States Aerospace Industry in 2002. “The president at Kitty Hawk could announce that they are beginning a planning process toward going back to the moon or to Mars, because that is already under way. But I think the chance of them announcing the details of a major program are minimal at best.”

What’s more likely, Walker said, is that Bush’s speech will concentrate on aviation, laying out a vision for the future of powered flight. Walker said he will be listening for a commitment to modernize the nation’s overburdened air traffic control system. But for the clearest insight into what Bush intends for NASA, Walker said he will be looking closely at the president’s budget request for 2005, due out in February.

Walker said he expects that the president’s budget will include a request for 3 to 5 percent budget increases for NASA for each of the next five years. Such an increase, if sustained and combined with resources from other government agencies interested in space, could be substantial enough for the United States to begin planning its way out of low Earth orbit, Walker said.

BIGGER BUDGET

A bigger NASA budget already has support in Congress. Twenty-three senators and 101 House members wrote Bush this fall pledging their support to a bold new direction for NASA. It is no secret that the White House has taken a leadership role in defining a revamped long-range vision for the U.S. space program. NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe has said on numerous occasions that he and senior officials from other federal government agencies with a stake in space have been meeting regularly at the White House to hash out a range of policy options for the president and his advisers to consider. So far, O’Keefe has offered few clues as to what those options are or when they could be announced.

Vice President Dick Cheney also paid a visit to House and Senate lawmakers this autumn to talk space, further fueling speculation that a major announcement could be in the works. But Capitol Hill sources said Cheney came to listen to lawmakers, not to provide a sneak peek at a new vision for spaceflight.

In recent weeks, the speculation has come increasingly to focus on returning to the moon and perhaps using it as a proving ground for the tools and techniques needed for eventual human exploration of Mars.

OUT OF THE SPIN CYCLE

Planting new footprints on the moon — a feat last done by Apollo 17 astronauts Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt in December 1972 — is seen by some as a way for NASA to regain its exploratory muscle beyond low Earth orbit. At present, many see the American human spaceflight program as being caught in a “spin cycle” — of astronauts merely spinning around Earth in a space shuttle or cooped up in the international space station.

Going back to the moon “is one of an increasingly large number of speculations on the content of the new ‘vision’ for the space program the White House is preparing,” said John Logsdon, director of the Space Policy Institute at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University in Washington.

A veteran space policy analyst, Logsdon told Space.com that foretelling what President Bush might or might not say is a tough assignment.

“At this point, figuring out the reality of what the president might announce is a bit akin to old-style ‘Kreminology’ — trying to base specifics on vague and partial statements and other signs of activity,” Logsdon said. “This has been a closely held process. My sense is that final decisions, including when the president might make his much anticipated announcement, have not yet been made.”

RIGHT STEP ... RIGHT DIRECTION

There are key reasons why going back to the moon as a stepping stone to Mars is the right step in the right direction, said Paul Spudis, a senior scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md.

For one, using the moon to test various technologies applicable to a humans-to-Mars project is a stroke of political genius, Spudis said. “It’s a very diplomatic way of bringing along the Mars advocates. I think the Mars people would take the moon as a test bed initiative in lieu of doing nothing. That’s not their preference, but they would accept that,” he told Space.com.

Going direct to Mars with humans, while doable, is a mission still fraught with unknowns, Spudis said. Whether toxic materials exist in the soil on Mars, harmful to humans, is still to be determined. Also, how best not to contaminate the Red Planet as astronauts troop around looking for life is a challenge, he said.

A lunar dress rehearsal for future Mars expeditions not only will test hardware and surface operation procedures of astronauts, Spudis said.

“Right now, there’s nobody at NASA that has any experience in planetary flight. It’s not the same as low-Earth orbital flight. It’s one thing to sit down and viewgraph a spaceflight architecture, build hardware, then launch that hardware. It’s another thing to actually operate it safely and efficiently, with knowledge and confidence.

“I would argue that what ever reason you go back to the moon, you get that experience. So in that sense, going back to the moon is preparation for Mars,” Spudis said.

While the moon can be utilized as training ground for treks to Mars, it is valuable in its own right. By putting NASA on a lunar trajectory, the moon can be linked to national security, as well as national economic infrastructure, Spudis said.

Producing propellant on the moon is relevant to both these topics, Spudis said. Doing so would beef up Earth-moon space operations, he said. Regarding the prospect of President Bush supporting a lunar return, Spudis said he is “cautiously optimistic.”

“I think I sense a disturbance in the force,” he said. “People are seriously thinking now about why we have a space program. That’s something that hasn’t been thought about seriously for 30 years, and that’s a good thing.”

Leonard David is senior space writer for Space.com. Brian Berger is a staff writer for Space News.

© 2003 Space.com. All rights reserved.

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