President Bush has resolved NASA's vision problem. The U.S. human spaceflight program has its long-awaited mandate to head out into the solar system after 30 years of going in circles around the home planet.
But this will not be your father's Apollo program. Or, with luck, Bush's own father's ill-fated space initiative.
In the absence of the Cold War urgency that drove the 1960s space race, Bush has outlined a tortoise-like pace, dictated by severe budget constraints, that allows a full decade just to develop a vehicle that would, once again, deliver people to the moon -- something Apollo engineers accomplished, starting from scratch, in about eight years.
What the plan lacks in momentum and flash, however, it makes up in political shrewdness, and analysts said that, unlike previous attempts to get the space program off the dime, it might even survive the congressional gantlet.
Its fate will depend heavily on how much credibility NASA, and particularly Administrator Sean O'Keefe, bring to the devilish details -- especially the questions of cost for myriad new initiatives that the new goals will entail, as NASA seeks to develop the long-needed technological advances required for any serious, long-term human presence in space.
"We're gratified that the president has done this," said retired Adm. Harold W. Gehman Jr., who chaired the Columbia Accident Investigation Board after the loss of a shuttle and seven astronauts almost a year ago. The board, in its final report, had decried the lack of a vision for human spaceflight. "This is a step in the right direction. . . . The president must lead, and he has done that."
Gehman said he has signaled that he will work with Pete Aldridge, head of a new presidential commission that will advise NASA on how best to implement the goals of the Bush space directive.
The president's plan leaves it up to the space agency to take out of its own hide an extra $11 billion that will be required over the next five years to take merely the first steps toward the new solar system exploration plan -- a daunting call for self-amputation not usually welcomed by bureaucracies. The agency will be returning to the moon for perhaps half -- and what some say could be as little as 30 percent -- of the cost of Apollo.
When Bush's father, President George H.W. Bush, in 1989 proposed a return to the moon and Mars, the agency essentially "blew it" by using the opportunity to bolster the fortunes of its mini-fiefdoms instead of transforming itself, said Howard McCurdy, a space historian at American University. If the agency does things right this time, he said, "the NASA that exists in 2015 will not be the agency that exists today."
He said the new Bush proposal is a stellar example of the old curse "Be careful what you wish for -- you may get it."
For much of the $11 billion shortfall, NASA officials indicate they will rely heavily on savings from the retirement of the remaining three shuttles in 2010, once they fulfill their primary purpose -- to finish building what has become a minimalist version of the international space station, which is currently orbiting half-built with a caretaker crew of two astronauts aboard. U.S. research aboard the orbiting facility will henceforth be focused solely on the effects of space on human physiology.
There may also be slowed growth in the NASA space science budget, sources said, and a "refocusing" of activities within the agency to support the central theme of returning to the moon. There will be no further servicing missions to the Hubble Space Telescope. Though there is rampant speculation about closing NASA facilities and axing programs, there were few specifics.
'Exciting and doable'
The plan is "exciting and doable" with the caveat that "NASA is going to have to be very clear" about what it can do for the limited money available, said Robert S. Walker, former chairman of a key House space committee and of the Commission on the Future of the U.S. Aerospace Industry. Walker praised O'Keefe for his efforts "to wrap his arms around those numbers" after the Bush White House appointed the former budget official to get control of runaway space station costs.
The challenges of the Bush directive, by all accounts, could test those skills to the limit.
Beyond the next five budget years, moreover, congressional sources said there are significant gaps in the game plan for funding the new initiative, as outlined in private briefings yesterday -- and many of them will stretch out long after their political parents in this administration have moved on. Such orphan programs, out of sync with the political rhythms of Washington, often fare poorly, analysts said.
There are also serious unknowns about how, physically, the mandate will be carried out. There is no mention of money for a big rocket that could replace the shuttle's heavy cargo-carrying capacity. One congressional space expert speculated that the development of such a vehicle might be taken out of NASA hands and given to the military or done in partnership with the commercial sector -- a course that has led to multiple costly failures in the past with such experimental projects as the National Aerospace Plane and the X-33.