President Bush emphasized American ingenuity, international cooperation and human destiny when he announced his new space policy this week, but the plan also reflected long-held ambitions of the U.S. aerospace and energy industries.
For years, they have labored to persuade NASA to pursue interplanetary voyages more aggressively, with companies standing to reap billions of dollars from the contracts and spinoff technologies that would result.
Industry officials said yesterday that they see a huge boon to business in Bush's "renewed spirit of discovery," which set a mission to Mars as a long-range goal after astronauts build a science base on the moon. Among the companies that could profit from the plan are Bethesda-based Lockheed Martin Corp., the Boeing Co. and the Halliburton Co., which Vice President Cheney headed before he joined Bush's ticket.
"Going beyond the moon is big news for us," Ed Memi, a spokesman for Boeing, which is NASA's largest contractor.
As an example of private industry's hunger for a Mars mission, Steve Streich, a veteran Halliburton scientific adviser, was among the authors of an article in Oil & Gas Journal in 2000 titled, "Drilling technology for Mars research useful for oil, gas industries." The article called a Mars exploration program "an unprecedented opportunity for both investigating the possibility of life on Mars and for improving our abilities to support oil and gas demands on Earth," because technology developed for the mission could be used on this planet.
Lockheed spokesman Tom Jurkowsky expressed similar enthusiasm. "Today our people in Houston, our people at Cape Canaveral, at the Marshall Space Center . . . are talking to their counterparts at NASA -- at headquarters, at all levels," he said.
NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe said at a briefing Wednesday that officials will now determine to what degree Bush's exploration program, which must be funded by Congress, will be "industry-driven."
Private companies had pushed NASA for years to think big, to undertake more far-reaching programs, such as sending astronauts to the moon or Mars. But the agency resisted, its ambitions beaten down by years of declining budgets, industry officials said.
'Look like fools'
One industry official said the climate changed last October, when China put a man in orbit and announced plans to go to the moon. Suddenly, the official said, the White House seemed anxious to revitalize the U.S. space program, in effect telling NASA that "we're not going to let the Chinese take the moon and let us look like fools." NASA then spent weeks in drills to come up with an outline for getting U.S. astronauts back into space in a big way, using some of the broad ideas that companies had been pushing.
A senior administration official involved in the process said the impetus for the space policy review was Bush's desire to give NASA a clear mission after the Feb. 1 disintegration of the space shuttle Columbia.
"The president made a commitment that we will continue on our journey," the official said. "But as we looked at that journey, the question was, is there a specific goal? What is the vision? And the assessment was that it lacked a specific vision and goal. The president kept asking, 'To what end? The space station, to what end? The shuttle crews will continue to orbit the Earth, for what end?' And he said, 'What is the vision?' " Whatever the plan's genesis, the aerospace industry has been hungry for the work. Many companies consolidated in the 1990s, with Boeing and Lockheed Martin emerging as by far the dominant contractors. One or the other oversees every major NASA program, and a Boeing/Lockheed joint venture, the United Space Alliance, manages the space shuttle program.
The companies had counted on a huge jump in commercial space business from the telecommunications industry, but when the Internet boom went bust and when fiber optics replaced satellites as the medium of choice, commercial space launches evaporated.
Military space business picked up some of the slack, but the giant companies have pushed for more NASA work. Industry officials said they did not do an end-run around NASA and plead their case directly to the White House.
The problem is funding. Although the extra $1 billion the president has proposed for NASA for the exploration project is a start, officials said, the agency will need more money to carry out the new goals. One industry executive said spending is likely to increase once the programs get underway.
That would fit a familiar pattern, said Phil Finnegan, an industry expert with the Teal Group aerospace consulting firm. Military programs traditionally start with small price tags and grow once Congress is bought in; NASA's international space station has done the same, he said.
The companies are ready with advice for NASA, though, about how to move forward at a politically viable pace. "We've been doing feasibility studies for some time on how to make an affordable, sustainable program," Boeing executive Mike Lounge said.
Halliburton's interest in Mars was first pointed out yesterday by the Progress Report, a daily publication of the liberal Center for American Progress. Administration officials scoffed at the idea that Halliburton had anything to do with the development of the space policy, which was headed by Bush's domestic policy adviser, Margaret Spellings, and Stephen Hadley, the deputy national security adviser. Another administration official said Cheney did not take a lead role in the interagency work on the space policy but gauged support on Capitol Hill and served in an advisory capacity.
An industry official who refused to be identified said the oil and gas industry, including Halliburton, would benefit considerably from technology that was developed for drilling on Mars, including the tools, the miniaturization, the drilling mechanism, the robotic systems and the control systems.
"How to go up there and drill remotely, seal it off, make sure the well stays stable, analyze it, produce from it -- that has a lot of application right here," the official said. "If you go up and drill down several thousand feet, you've got to have the same types of safety equipment there that you're going to have here, or you'll blow your spacecraft off wherever it landed, if anything comes back at you out of the ground, like it does here."
Staff writer Renae Merle contributed to this report.