Sunday, May 22, 2005

President Bush set a new course for the troubled space program in January 2004 — his own version of President Kennedy’s Apollo Project — intending to inspire America’s stargazing youths.

Man would return to the moon by the year 2020, he said. “We will then be ready to take the next steps in space exploration: human missions to Mars and to worlds beyond.”

“The human thirst for knowledge ultimately cannot be satisfied even by the most vivid of pictures,” Mr. Bush told a crowd at NASA’s headquarters. “We need to see and examine and touch for ourselves.”

Since that speech, the words “Mars” and “moon” have not crossed Mr. Bush’s lips in a public setting.

Among the few who know the status of the Mars project — those who work in NASA’s vast family of research labs — there is trepidation that putting a man on the moon and beyond is taking funding away from other, more practical, endeavors.

NASA’s new administrator, Michael Griffin, told the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee this month that “we cannot afford everything” that the agency has on its plate.

But he is determined to enact Mr. Bush’s refocusing of NASA.

“I am personally committed to carrying out that vision,” Mr. Griffin said.

First up is getting the space shuttle back into orbit and working to finish the International Space Station, while keeping on schedule to retire the shuttle in 2010. Shortly after the commission released its report on the February 2003 Columbia disaster, NASA estimated it would take 20 missions to achieve that goal, but last week, Mr. Griffin suggested it is no longer realistic.

“It is an extremely robust schedule,” Mr. Griffin said. “We are not sure we can accomplish it.”

The next launch mission window for the shuttle begins in mid-July, about the time Mr. Griffin expects to present to Congress a plan for retiring the shuttle and accelerating the development of the new “crew exploration vehicle” and the rocket needed to launch it.

One thing NASA has in its favor is its budget. Mr. Bush asked for $16.5 billion for NASA in 2006, and the House Budget Committee approved full funding. Indeed, NASA was among the few discretionary budget categories to get an increase over last year.

When Mr. Griffin faced the Senate appropriators earlier this month, he was assured of similar support.

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, Texas Republican, said she recognizes that many other research departments of NASA “feel the pressure” from the change in priority, but that going to the moon and Mars is the right choice.

“This is a new direction, a bold direction and one that I totally support,” Mrs. Hutchison said. “NASA should be bold, and having the long-term vision is essential for NASA.”

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