Money is of course an issue. Bush stressed his plan would add only about 5 percent to NASA’s $15.4 billion budget in fiscal 2005-a low-ball figure that undoubtedly reflects the constraints imposed by a half-trillion-dollar budget deficit. He plans to budget $12 billion for the program over the next five years, but $11 billion will be shifted from other NASA projects. Bush didn’t identify exactly which program would lose out, but one logical source is NASA’s old project to replace the shuttle the Space Launch Initiative which had been budgeted for about $6 billion over the next five years. Other money presumably will come from human space flight-including the shuttle and the station-which has been receiving about $6 billion a year.The new ideas have been kicking around within NASA for a long time, and bubbled to the top after the Columbia disaster. Many details remain unclear. Bush won’t submit his fiscal 2005 budget until February 3, and Congress will want to have its say. Yet some directions are clear. Bush didn’t go for the biggest potential money-saver-grounding the shuttle immediately, as some observers had suggested. That isn’t politically viable because it would kill the space station-an international project on which Europe, Japan, Russia and Canada have spent billions. Finishing assembly of the station will complete U.S. obligations. Russian spacecraft, and new vehicles being developed by Europe, Japan, and the United States, could then service the station.
Previous NASA efforts to replace the shuttle have floundered when advanced technologies failed to meet ambitious performance targets. The single stage to orbit “Delta Clipper” is a case in point. The orbital space plane-a vaguely defined spacecraft to be launched on a human-rated version of the Atlas 5 or Delta IV-never got beyond the drawing boards. No specific plans are set for the new spacecraft. “We’ve got to avoid getting fond of a design,” O’Keefe said. The new craft ought to be able to evolve to fit changing needs, starting with unmanned launches and later carrying astronauts-first to the space station and later to the moon.
Bush’s proposal inevitably recalls his father’s 1989 plan to return to the Moon and send astronauts to Mars by 2019. A blue-ribbon panel assembled four detailed scenarios spanning 30 years, but the project died stillborn-victim of a projected $400 billion price tag, the aftermath of the Challenger disaster and Hubble fiasco, and escalating budget deficits.
The younger Bush’s plan clearly echoes the scenarios developed for his father, which called for landing a roving robot on Mars by 2003. Robotics technology has advanced faster than expected, and plays a major role in the new scenario. Human spaceflight, however, has progressed more slowly. This week’s announcement did not prescribe designs or specific timetables. That’s more realistic in a task that involves extensive research. It also avoids embarrassments like the overruns that brought the cost of Reagan’s $8 billion space station close to $100 billion.
Space scientists seem receptive, although with qualifications. The Planetary Society welcomed Bush’s plans for human exploration of Mars, but remains skeptical about revisiting the moon. “How lunar missions would lead to a Mars landing must be closely examined,” said executive director, Louis Friedman.
“It would be a worthwhile investment for the country to go back to the moon with a plan for extended stays and to learn to operate on another world,” McDowell said. But he worries that by casting NASA’s mission as “exploration,” Bush is setting the stage for conflicts with NASA’s science programs. “We need to distinguish between science and exploration… NASA can do both and we can afford to do both.” Astronomers and planetary scientists don’t want to see their projects fighting against human spaceflight.
If we’re going to keep sending people into space, we have to replace the shuttle. NASA has dithered far too long, and desperately needs a long-term sense of direction. The new plan isn’t revolutionary, but it is heading in the right direction. Its fate will likely come down to politics when push comes to shove, long after the November elections.