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Scripps Howard News Service January 28, 2004

What's in the stars for NASA? Observers ponder

By Lee Bowman

- President Bush has outlined a new vision for NASA over the next two decades that could take humans beyond the moon for the first time, but some space experts still fear the aftermath of the Columbia shuttle disaster will end an era of humans flying in American spacecraft.

NASA's missions have long been primarily defined by crisis and political needs and limited by how much money the government was willing to devote to space exploration.

The first U.S. space missions were mounted to match, and then surpass, Soviet prowess, with the moon landings made largely to fulfill a pledge by President John F. Kennedy.

In an era of limited detente, President Richard Nixon promoted the notion of all-purpose space shuttles, and President Ronald Reagan embraced the International Space Station as a counterweight to his "Star Wars" antimissile initiatives.

The loss of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986 raised doubts about the need for piloted flights, and NASA drastically curbed the number and type of missions the shuttles undertook. But Reagan never considered ceding Earth orbit to the Soviet Union by not flying a shuttle again.

Now, in the wake of another tragedy and the stunning success with robotic probes of Mars, Bush too has laid out an ambitious plan for NASA. He called for a return to the moon and establishment of a base there that would later serve as a jumping-off point for a piloted flight to Mars. This would all be supported by a new generation of piloted spacecraft that would take to orbit about a decade from now.

A year after the shuttle Columbia disintegrated upon re-entry, Bush's agenda leaves the nation's remaining three piloted spacecraft just one task to accomplish before they're retired - finishing the space station by 2010. If all the components already built or on the drawing board go into orbit, completion of the station would require another 27 to 30 shuttle flights and perhaps $25 billion.

The new plan gives NASA a focus that many observers say has been sorely lacking for more than a decade. But it demands that the space agency reorganize and streamline to come up with $11 billion over the next five years to pay for new transports - out of annual budgets expected to remain at $15 billion to $16 billion.

It's a squeeze that many scientists fear will come at the expense of the unmanned missions that have proved so successful for NASA in the past several years.

"The new initiative is going to substantially underfund the programs that are actually flying in order to produce artwork of spacecraft that may never be built," said John Pike, a longtime space-industry analyst and director of the Arlington, Va., think tank GlobalSecurity.org. "It's a politically graceful way of shutting down the whole program, because once we're not flying, the politicians can start to wonder why we ever put people in space to begin with."

Although there have been high-profile mishaps with probes to Mars and elsewhere in the past decade, NASA has scored tremendous scientific feats with the Hubble space telescope, and missions to the moons of Jupiter and to asteroids and comets. There has also been less celebrated but still important work, such as studying the sun and Earth's outer atmosphere.

But no matter how well robots do, the public imagination and political support for NASA are fired by piloted space flights.

"We identify with astronauts the way we do with sports teams. We may have boring jobs and lives, but we live vicariously through them. That's why the loss of the Challenger and the Columbia was felt so deeply," said American University astronomer Richard Berendzen.

However, Berendzen, like many in the space community, argues that public fascination with space has faltered in recent years mostly because the piloted missions have been relatively unambitious. "We're not going where no man has gone before. We're in low Earth orbit; we've been there before. We're retracing John Glenn's first flight, not to mention his second."

Pike has long argued that the shuttle program was more a matter of political necessity and national pride than practical science.

"But if we withdraw the political support that piloted flight generates, I'm afraid we're going to wind up with not much of a robotic program, a bunch of weather and navigation satellites," he said. "We'll be left with a space age that appears to be a historical curiosity, a sideshow, sort of like the zeppelins."

Space historian Howard McCurdy, also of American University, notes that the space shuttle and station consume about one-third of NASA's budget. He wonders if it might not make sense to end the programs sooner than later.

"Logically, if we want to go to the moon and Mars, we should be shutting things down now," he said, estimating that would free up about $25 billion over five years.

Berendzen said the shuttle has "never lived up to its promise" of providing relatively cheap, consistent access to orbit. "It became a project in search of a mission. And that mission has become the space station, where the science simply hasn't been the breaking-edge kind of stuff that we're seeing with the Mars robots."

John Logsdon, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University and a member of the Columbia accident investigation board, says, "human space flight is part of our national profile, a point of pride of the American public. But the new policy articulates that if we continue to put people in space, they should go somewhere."

He also argues that there's value in completing the space station and using it as a lab to experiment with humans living in a weightless environment - even if a new shuttle isn't available until 2012 or later and visits to the station would remain dependent on Russian, and perhaps Chinese, spacecraft.

If critics like Pike see Bush's moon-and-Mars initiative as "so absurdly under-funded as to constitute a fraud," Berendzen and others consider the approach "more prudent.

"The problem with the big initiatives like this in the past has been they start out with these huge price tags that shock everyone into doing nothing," Berendzen said. "I was on the NASA advisory council back when Bush the father set the date for reaching Mars at July 2019 - 50 years after the first Apollo landing. But then the opponents started throwing out these wild numbers of $100 billion, then $500 billion, then $800 billion, that had no basis in anything tangible.

"The budget really depends on the mission, when you go, how you go, how many people you send and how long do they stay. The president's approach seems to allow a slow, sober look at all this for about five years - probably not by coincidence what would be the end of a second Bush term - and then some very hard decisions will have to be made about how NASA and any partners might proceed."


Copyright 2004, Scripps Howard News Service