President Bush is preparing to unveil a new space initiative with a long-range goal of returning humans to the moon and establishing a permanent presence there, then moving on to Mars, sources told NBC News.
White House press secretary Scott McClellan told reporters Friday that the president would make remarks about the space program next Wednesday in Washington.
"The president is strongly committed to the exploration of space," McClellan said.
McClellan declined to discuss the contents of the upcoming speech, as did NASA spokesman Glenn Mahone.
"We're not going to pre-empt the president," Mahone said, "but we're excited about the news of the announcement next week and what it means for the future direction of NASA."
Speculation within the U.S. space community about a major White House policy announcement has been swirling for months, with some speculating that Bush would say something when he spoke at the Wright Brothers centennial in Kitty Hawk. But the president stayed mum on the subject, despite prodding from actor John Travolta, who urged him at the event to commit to such an idea and even volunteered to go on the first mission.
The U.S. space program is still struggling to recover nearly a year after the shuttle Columbia broke up on re-entry but has been greatly buoyed by Saturday's successful landing of the Spirit rover on Mars and the stunning pictures it has since beamed back.
Congressional sources told Reuters that the administration was also considering setting up a more streamlined hierarchy for guiding the government's wide-ranging space programs and coordinating its research and development. Under this scenario, there could be more exchanges of technology between NASA and the Defense Department.
Some members of Congress have said they want to ensure that the United States remains the global leader in space exploration.
"If we don't do it, somebody else will," said U.S. Rep. Bart Gordon of Tennessee, a ranking Democrat on the House Science Committee. "The Chinese, the Europeans and the Japanese all have the goal of going to the moon. Certainly we don't want to wake up and see that they have a base there before we do."
New technologies and energy sources
The new space plan was spearheaded in large part by NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe, Reuters reported. O'Keefe was appointed by Bush to restore credibility to an agency plagued by budget troubles, including billions of dollars in cost overruns at the space station.
Vice President Dick Cheney also was involved in the policy development, along with other senior Bush advisers. The administration was said to see the initiative as an important national security measure, and experts said it could lead to new technologies and potential new sources of energy.
United Press International quoted administration sources as saying the current plan called for an $800 million boost in space spending for fiscal year 2005, with most of that money going to develop new robotic space vehicles and new human exploration systems. NASA's current budget is about $15.5 billion.
The space budget would be increased in stages for at least the next five years, looking toward the first manned lunar landing of the 21st century in 2013, UPI reported. The lunar effort would set the stage for missions to Mars, White House sources were quoted as saying.
Bush's father, former President George H.W. Bush, had proposed a mission to Mars that was scuttled because of concerns over its high cost. The younger Bush likewise faces budgetary constraints, including a budget deficit expected to top $500 billion this year alone. An ambitious space proposal would likely to face challenges from fiscal conservatives and Democrats who want him to focus on domestic issues like education and health care.
Questioned about the potential costs, McClellan suggested that resources might be reallocated within NASA to support new policy goals. He said Bush would "put forth a responsible budget that meets our highest priorities while working to hold the line of spending elsewhere in the budget."
While some advocates of sending a human mission to Mars have been critical of a new focus on the moon, others see a permanent presence there as a necessary precursor.
"We should go to the moon and set up a research base there. That then will provide the opportunities to develop technologies and systems that will allow us to have human space expeditions to the moon or Mars or other places later," Gordon said.
Looking ahead to Mars
Experts said the goal should be to set up a research base on the moon to test technologies that would be useful on a mission to Mars.
"The idea is to go to Mars. And the way you get to Mars is you go to the moon, and you practice three days from home. It's the equivalent of climbing Mount Rainier and preparing for Mount Everest," Howard McCurdy, a space-policy expert at American University in Washington, told Reuters.
NASA astronaut Mike Foale, one of the two men now orbiting Earth aboard the international space station, also recently compared space exploration to mountain climbing.
"You have to form a base camp, where you have to put all your resources there. Then you work from that base camp further out to get to the peak. ... I think the moon should be a great base camp to go onto Mars," Foale said.