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updated 1/12/2004 4:08:44 PM ET 2004-01-12T21:08:44

The Bush administration is looking to the moon as the perfect launch pad and testing ground for future spaceflight, a place where communication with Earth is easy and low gravity makes for lighter launches.

The moon is the centerpiece of the space initiative Bush will make public in Washington on Wednesday, his senior advisers say. A long-term station there would pave the way for human missions to other, more remote destinations such as Mars and even asteroids. It also would make the costs of such explorations lower than they would be from Earth, administration officials said.

Still, the president doesn’t foresee a settlement on the moon for 10 to 15 years, and on Mars for 25 to 30 years.

The architects of Bush’s long-range space plan cite several advantages to setting up camp on the moon. Its gravitational field is about one-sixth that of Earth’s, meaning it would take less energy — and money — to launch spacecraft from there.

The moon would be an ideal place to assemble equipment such as housing that would then be transported farther afield. It is close enough to Earth that communications with the planet would be easy. Its poles may contain frozen water.

And astronauts could develop new technologies and perform simulated exercises on its surface.

“The moon is the proving ground, and that’s where we need to be going,” said Don Nelson, a retired NASA engineer whose career spanned Gemini, Apollo and the space shuttle. He helped calibrate the necessary propellant, lights, gas and water for the lunar landers.

Retiring the space shuttle
To make way for the next generation of space exploration, the president will call for retiring the space shuttle program by the end of this decade, said the officials, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Currently, the shuttles provide the only way to haul heavy equipment to the international space station, but by then, the United States would have completed its commitment to the orbiting facility, the officials said. European and Russian rockets should be able to fill the gap.

A new type of space vehicle would be designed to carry crews and equipment to the moon.

Current government planning calls for modest increases in NASA spending in the next few years, and Bush does not plan to call for a dramatic hike, administration officials said. Several reports have put the extra expense at $800 million in fiscal 2005, as part of a 5 percent yearly boost in space spending for at least five years.

Deficit reduction in mind
The new space proposals will not undermine Bush’s goal of cutting the federal deficit in half within five years, Treasury Secretary John Snow said.

Snow said the new space proposals, which include a permanent settlement on the moon and setting a goal of sending Americans to Mars, will be undertaken “within a framework of fiscal responsibility.”

Snow said the administration’s budget, which will be sent to Congress on Feb. 2, will outline the new space proposals plus a plan that will accomplish the goal of cutting record budget deficits in half through a combination of stronger economic growth and spending restraint.

“We can do both. We really can,” Snow said in an interview on ABC’s “This Week.” “This is a country of enormous resources, and we have the capacity to pursue a number of priorities at one time, but we have to do so within the framework of fiscal responsibility. I think you’ll see that reflected in the budget.”

Snow’s Cabinet colleague, Commerce Secretary Donald Evans, agreed that Bush’s space ideas are audacious. But he rejected the suggestion Americans might consider the plans’ probable huge cost wasteful at a time with millions of people unemployed and the country facing other expensive needs.

“America has always needed a challenge of a big and bold idea,” Evans said on CNN’s “Late Edition.”

“I can also tell you that this program will be within a responsible fiscal budget because the president knows, once again, the basic ingredients to growing an economy and creating more jobs are cutting taxes and controlling spending.”

In previewing Bush’s official announcement, White House aides did not discuss costs. Bush’s father proposed during his presidency a more muted project, which would have aimed at putting Americans on Mars without mention of a moon base. The cost of that enterprise was projected at $400 billion to $500 billion in 1989 dollars, far too rich for Congress to consider.

Costs debated
Democratic contenders to take Bush’s job said Sunday that the president’s moon-Mars ideas appeared to be a case of misplaced priorities.

“I haven’t looked at the numbers lately, but I don’t know that we can go off on a new moon mission or Mars mission, if that’s the suggestion, and just have the money to do something in addition to completing the space station,” said Rep. Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., interviewed on CBS’ “Face the Nation” from Des Moines, Iowa.

“We’re pretty far down the road on the space station, and we need to complete it and have the success from it that we need,” he said.

MSNBC's Alan Boyle contributed to this report.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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