msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 2/11/2004 6:15:16 PM ET 2004-02-11T23:15:16

An aerospace executive warned a presidential commission Wednesday that NASA does not have enough money — or bright young stars — to achieve President Bush’s goal of returning astronauts to the moon and flying from there to Mars.

“It would be a grave mistake to undertake a major new space objective on the cheap. To do so, in my opinion, would be an invitation to disaster,” said Norman Augustine, retired chairman of Lockheed Martin Corp. and head of a panel that examined the future of the space program for the first President Bush.

Augustine was among aerospace experts who addressed the first public hearing of the current President Bush’s space exploration commission, held in Washington.

Is $150 billion enough?
Commission member Neil deGrasse Tyson, an astrophysicist who is director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York, asked Augustine whether $15 billion a year for 10 years would be enough to set NASA on course to fulfill the moon-and-then-on-to-Mars vision put forth by Bush one month ago. The space agency’s annual budget has been around $15 billion in recent years.

Augustine pointed out that during the next decade, NASA will still have the enormous cost of running all its centers, the space shuttle fleet and the international space station, not to mention conducting research. He said the nation traditionally has underestimated the cost of big programs.

Tyson pressed Augustine, asking: “Are you suggesting $150 billion over the next 10 years would not be enough if it all went to that mission?”

Augustine replied that he had not done enough analysis to give an answer, “but I guess if I had to bet, I’d bet that it wouldn’t be enough.”

The price tag that emerged from the studies that Augustine and other experts did more than a decade ago for a similar moon-and-Mars plan was $450 billion — and the initiative eventually fizzled out. When Tyson asked what lessons could be drawn for the current initiative, Augustine emphasized the importance of "presidential leadership."

Price tag missing
Neither Bush nor NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe has put a price tag on the current plan to return astronauts to the moon by 2020, let alone sending them on to Mars a decade or more later. The president has proposed an extra $1 billion for NASA over the next five years for the initiative, and has directed the space agency to reallocate $11 billion within its budgets over the next five years to cover startup costs. Much of the money would be shifted from the current budgets for the shuttle fleet and the space station.

Retired Air Force Gen. Lester Lyles, another commission member, noted that this is a national program, not a NASA program, and that the budgets and technologies of other government agencies could be tapped into.

The commission’s chairman, Edward “Pete” Aldridge, a retired Pentagon official, said both the White House and NASA believe the new space initiative is affordable with small budget increases and reallocations, at least for the foreseeable future.

During a news conference following the hearing, Tyson said that if the project turned out to be more expensive than the commission anticipated, "we'll have to face that fact."

"I don’t fear that," he told reporters. "Right now, the amount of money is a dollar per American per week. And I don’t think that’s that much money. Maybe that’s just me."

He said the key challenge would be convincing the American public that the exploration program was worth the expense, whether that turned out to be $1 or $1.50 a week.

The nine-member commission has 120 days to complete its review of how best to implement the policy, and report back to the president.

National space council suggested
Virtually everyone at the hearing supported the idea of a national space council or some other type of clearinghouse to oversee the effort, and stressed the need for strong White House support as well as youth appeal.

Augustine, for one, said he was worried about NASA’s graying work force. Back during the Apollo program, when NASA was sending men to the moon, the control center was filled with “a bunch of kids,” he said.

“They looked like Silicon Valley did a few years ago: young, innovative, imaginative, creative people. They weren’t people of my generation, for sure,” the 68-year-old Augustine said, tapping his chest. “One can argue whether that’s good or whether it’s bad, but it sure served Apollo well.”

Former shuttle astronaut Tom Stafford told the commission that the Apollo program succeeded in part because of the specific nature of the mission. Like Augustine, Stafford headed a panel that worked on the elder Bush's space initiative, and he said the new program should hit a series of significant, specific milestones on the path to Mars.

Commission member Maria Zuber, a planetary scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, cited the number of young scientists and engineers involved in the current Mars rover mission as evidence that the next generation still had the right stuff for space exploration — if the mission was right.

Tyson echoed that point during the news conference: “With a truly seductive vision, I'm convinced that they’ll be climbing in through the windows trying to become scientists and engineers.”

Votes of support
The space initiative received a vote of support of the Aerospace Industries Association, which represents U.S. companies that make aircraft, missiles and spacecraft and related materials.

“We’re delighted with the president’s initiative and we’re on board 100 percent,” the association’s Raymond Ernst told the commission.

Mark Bitterman of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s space enterprise council told commission members that they should take advantage of the high interest in the rovers now roaming Mars.

“We should be trying to tie them today, as best we can, to what we’re trying to do later,” he said. “We need to strike while the iron’s hot.”

Bitterman also suggested that Hollywood could help plug the new space exploration policy.

“After all, we’re talking about doing things here about which movies were made not too long ago. We’re talking about landing humans on Mars within the next few decades,” Bitterman said.

“They weren’t good movies, though,” said one of the commissioners, drawing a laugh.

This report includes information from The Associated Press, Reuters and MSNBC's Alan Boyle.

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