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Lofty space vision runs into realities

President Bush's initiative to send humans back to the moon and on to Mars will quickly run up against political and economic realities, lawmakers and aides say.
/ Source: Reuters

President Bush’s expected space initiative to send Americans back to the moon and ultimately to Mars may set some spirits soaring, but real-life concerns such as money and a more safety-conscious NASA could keep it firmly on the ground.

Next Wednesday, Bush is expected to propose a plan to work toward a permanent American presence on the moon and an eventual manned mission to Mars, administration officials and congressional aides say.

It would be a huge boost to U.S. space exploration after the morale-sapping Columbia space shuttle disaster last year. But some politicians and space experts wondered whether it was mostly about the November presidential election.

A senior Senate Republican aide said the plan gives Bush a ”big bold idea” to run on for re-election. But would the Republican-led Congress fund it?

“Unlikely,” the aide said, asking not to be identified by name. “But the president doesn’t have to get this through Congress this year. He just needs to put it on the table as part of the agenda for his second term.

“The president is now looking for centrist supporters who may be enthralled by big ideas. This has much less to do about legislative reality on Capitol Hill this year than it has to do with political reality in 2004,” he said.

The bottom line?
White House spokesman Scott McClellan declined to give details ahead of next week’s announcement. But, without revealing a price tag, he said the cost had been reviewed in the context of the federal budget for fiscal 2005, to be submitted to Congress on Feb. 2.

Democratic presidential front-runner Howard Dean looked quickly to the bottom line.

“I’m very much in favor of space exploration,” Dean said. ”Where is the tax increase to pay for it? We already have a half-a-trillion-dollar deficit. It is not worth bankrupting the country if that’s what’s going to happen. This president needs to be serious about the budget deficit.”

Even if the funds appear -- and the big money could be called for after Bush ends the second term he seeks -- the technical hurdles are considerable.

Following Apollo
Bush’s vision includes abandoning winged space planes such as the space shuttle in favor of an updated version of the old Apollo capsule that served NASA in the 1960s and 1970s, congressional sources told Reuters.

“There’s been a lot of support for the capsule design in the astronaut office,” astronaut-commander Scott Altman recently told Reuters. “It’s a safer design.”

But getting to the moon again, much less landing there, will not necessarily be easier for having done it nine times between 1968 and 1972, space experts say.

The United States no longer has a rocket powerful enough to launch an Apollo-style moon mission. And although the Saturn 5 moon rocket was developed in just five years, it was dropped from production three years after Neil Armstrong’s first moon landing in 1969.

The reality is that a rocket like the Saturn 5 is too powerful and too expensive to build for ordinary commercial and military satellites.

The most powerful rocket in the U.S. arsenal today, the Boeing Delta 4-Heavy, could put about 12 tons into lunar orbit, a Boeing Co. spokesman said. That's less than half the lift needed for a human moon mission. That could mean multiple launches for each mission, increasing the risk of failure.

Risk is not an option?
Safety is generally an impediment to progress in spaceflight, and seat-of-the-pants flying was more acceptable in Cold War space-race days. Today, NASA does not like surprises. Its response after both the 1986 Challenger disaster and last year’s Columbia accident was to limit the conditions and opportunities for liftoff.

“I’m not sure you could get the lunar module (of 1969) approved for flight today. The mission would probably be too risky,” Milt Heflin, head of the NASA flight director’s office, told Reuters.

Roger Handberg, author of “Reinventing NASA” and a public policy expert focused on space matters, argues that the Bush administration is working from a position of weakness — convinced that projects like the shuttle program and the international space station have not delivered, but worried that pulling the plug would upset international notions of U.S. primacy.

“Bush is committed to space not because he cares, but because he cannot afford to be seen as failing,” Handberg told Reuters.

Additional reporting by Tom Ferraro and Caren Bohan in Washington, and Patricia Wilson in Rochester, N.H.