Posted 1:44pm January 26
by Melissa Kronfeld
U-WIRE Washington Bureau
On October 26th, 2000, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration announced that before 2005 a robotically manned mission to Mars will have been successfully deployed. And indeed, just two weeks ago, the Mars Exploration Rover Mission, Spirit landed on the surface of the red planet beginning its three month $820 million journey to advance the human understanding of our sister planet.
On January 14th, President George W. Bush announced his plan to rejuvenate the space program, an initiative at the scope and level of that undertaken by President John F. Kennedy in the 1960s.
In the plan, laid out at NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C., the President set clear goals for the NASA team under the leadership of Sean O’Keefe. The future of space exploration, outlined by the president, lies in fulfilling obligations and returning to human space missions beyond the earth’s orbit.
The President set his expectations high, informing the NASA staff that their goals included returning a man to the moon, and creating conditions for a prolonged stay on the alien surface to increase their ability to explore further planetary systems while decreasing the costs of exploration. The last manned mission to travel beyond the earth’s orbit, 386 miles beyond the surface of the earth (the distance between George Washington University and Boston University’s campuses), was the Apollo 17 on December 17, 1972. He also announced the continuation of fulfilling the U.S. obligation to the 15-member nations of the International Space Shuttle project.
But the President also announced his hopes to retire the Space Shuttle after 30 years of service in favor of a newly constructed one that will be completed at the projected target date of 2014. This Crew Exploration Vehicle will be ready for testing by 2008, and for service by 2014. Its twin goals will be exploration and service of the International Space Station.
The President estimated $12 billion for the next five years of which $11 billion will be directed from the current $86 billion budget of NASA and an additional $1 billion of which the President will ask Congress to approve. This would make NASA’s projected 2005 budget $87 billion, just a half billion less then the recently approved $87.5 billion budget for the War on Terrorism. Although NASA’s budget remains, as O’Keefe was quoted, less then one percent of the national budgetary expenditures, the new budget will represent an overall 5 percent increase in spending. O’Keefe told the press, that the average taxpayer still only contributes about 15 cents a days to the space program, a total of $54.74 a year.
A new Associated Press poll finds the publicly evenly split; 48 percent of Americans polled both agreed with and did not agree with the expansion of the space program. Incidentally, the 1960s announcement by Kennedy fueled the same reaction. A Harris poll taken in 1967 found an even split in opinion within the public and a man was on the Moon in 1969. But it only cost the Kennedy administration $24 million to complete the mission. The same AP poll found that 55 percent of Americans preferred that the money be spent domestically.
Senator Bill Nelson, D-Fla., told the press, “The first year after Kennedy announced the Apollo program, the NASA budget was doubled. And in the second year it was doubled again. That’s not realistic today. But 5 percent a year increases are not going to get us to the Moon.”
Democrats are not the only skeptics of the plan’s feasibility. Alex Roland, a NASA historian at Duke University, said the missions could be just as easily executed with robots and the costs will far exceed the knowledge gained. Roland also noted that the U.S. already spends more on space programs then the entire world collectively and in so doing still remains the leader of the space pack. Stephan Moore, President of the Club for Growth Project thinks that that the estimated $500 billion over the next 25 years that the project will cost could be better spent if focused on terrorism.
Still, the President’s vision has its supporters and enthusiasts. The Planetary Society, the world’s largest space advocacy NGO welcomed the President’s dream. Co-founder Bruce Murray was quoted, “The worldwide attention focused on Spirit’s successful Mars landing testifies to the enormous public and scientific interest in robotic exploration of Mars.” But the group’s Executive Director Louis Friedman warned that “Much work, both technical and political, needs to be done to implement this program.” But he applauded the program as being “a crucial beginning.”