Sunday, January 18, 2004

President Bush has set America on a bold new course for exploration and our aging, lethargic space program — a bold step into the cosmos that could help expand our presence in the solar system within a lifetime.

The Apollo program of the 1960s and early 1970s, during the cowboy-era of space exploration, achieved its goal of putting Americans on the moon in a stunningly short eight years (stunning because most of the program, vehicles and procedures were developed from scratch in that short span).

However, since Apollo, the space program has become bogged down in a bureaucratic fen that has lacked political leadership and bold vision.

While the international space station sounded promising, it has amounted to a glorified Tinker Toy in search of a mission. The space shuttle, once the pride of NASA, is now the claxon that highlights that space administration’s stagnancy and failure — especially in light of the potentially preventable shuttle tragedies in 1987 and last year. But, even in their glory, the shuttles were little more than glorified rigs, meant to haul heavy cargo and perform some experiments, but hardly for direct exploration.

Coupled with tanked projects such as the technologically anachronistic space plane (essentially strapping astronauts and equipment to explosive fuel tanks), the space program’s long-term exploratory future seemed even more doubtful.

The president’s plan steamrolls over these problems, giving NASA a new mission and purpose: that, as a species, our destiny is to explore the solar system and beyond; that interplanetary travel will begin with stations on Mars; and that America, the sole recognized superpower, must lead in this endeavor.

“We do not know where this journey will end, yet we know this: Human beings are headed into the cosmos,” Mr. Bush said last Wednesday. If this all sounds like “Star Trek” revisited, it is.

It’s time we stopped circling our planet and began steering a course into the unknown — as our forebears explored and charted the oceans and the Earth before us. Or, as Mr. Bush said Wednesday, our destiny is “to extend a human presence across our solar system.”

In 1989, Mr. Bush’s father, worrying about “this vision thing,” also proposed a mission to the moon and Mars, but fiefdom battles in NASA, resistance in the Democratic Congress and a growing deficit killed the idea.

George Bush II starts out with a Republican-run Congress, a commitment from NASA to reconfigure its budget, and a unifying call to the nation to “test our limits to dream” — to go where no human being has gone before.

His new charter to NASA is being cheered by the space agency’s top officials. Many have long complained the agency was getting short shrift from past administrations and, more recently, has seen its star dim as the focus turned to fighting the war on terrorism. Now the agency is front-and-center in the nation’s future agenda.

The plan: retire the creaking shuttle by the end of this decade; develop and test a new crew exploration vehicle that would travel to the moon by 2014; and build moon stations as a departure point for travel to Mars and beyond by 2020 at the latest.

One of the important changes in the space program is to end the quagmire of choosing either human or robotic missions. We will do both. Much more robotic exploration of the solar system is planned. Robots will return to the moon by 2008.

This is an efficient way to further our understanding of the moon, Mars and the other planets in our system, and play to our technological strength in the robotic sciences. Other countries, like Japan, which has developed a specialty in humanlike robots, will no doubt play a role.

As for the budgetary costs of all this, fears of driving up the deficit, in my opinion, are all nonsense. Much of the early costs will come out of NASA’s existing $15.4 billion budget as a result of program terminations and other savings after completing the space station and de-emphasizing it, and ending the space shuttle program by 2010.

The plan at present calls for increasing NASA’s budget by a modest 5 percent a year between now and 2007. This, again, is not an issue, as the federal budget will no doubt grow, and our economy will grow faster, producing budget surpluses.

The program itself will yield huge scientific breakthroughs that will also add to our economy’s growing strength and diversity.

As NASA’s Mission Control says just before firing its rockets, I would say the plan “is a go for liftoff.”

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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