Bush on verge of announcing plans to send astronauts back to the moon, eventually on to Mars

Friday, January 9th 2004, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) _ President Bush is said to be on the verge of announcing plans to build a permanent science base for astronauts on the moon that could serve as a steppingstone for sending humans ultimately on to Mars.

Senior administration officials said Thursday night that Bush will announce his plans in a speech next week. The president wants to aggressively reinvigorate the space program, still reeling from the Columbia tragedy nearly one year ago, said the officials, speaking on condition of anonymity.

But a Nobel-winning physicist who investigated the shuttle accident is among those who would rather see more affordable robots _ rather than astronauts _ exploring the lunar and martian surfaces. He points to NASA's Spirit rover newly arrived at Mars.

``The cost of a manned enclave on the moon, I think, is going to make the space station look cheap. That's the only good thing about it,'' said Stanford University's Douglas Osheroff.

In any event, ``I think we're still 30 years from going to Mars and if there's any reason to do that, I don't know,'' Osheroff said.

Bush does not intend to propose sending Americans to Mars anytime soon, but instead envisions preparing for a Mars expedition more than a decade from now, one administration official said.

The White House has been looking for a new revitalizing role for NASA for months, with Vice President Dick Cheney leading the interagency task force since summer. The speculation over a major space initiative began heating up in early December.

Many insiders expected Bush to use the 100th anniversary of the Wright brothers' first flight as the backdrop for the announcement. But he focused instead on aviation and said the United States would continue to lead the world in that field. Speculation then shifted to the State of the Union address in late January.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan declined to provide details of the president's plans, confirming only that Bush would unveil them next week. NASA officials did not return phone calls.

Rep. Ralph Hall, R-Texas, a member of the House Science Committee, welcomed the news.

Hall said he has long been trying to get the president more interested in space exploration. The president never went to Johnson Space Center in Houston while serving as Texas governor; in fact, last February's memorial service for the seven Columbia astronauts was his first visit.

Bush's fresh interest in space happens to coincide with an election year. A new bold space initiative, it is thought, could excite Americans.

``I had the feeling the last 2 1/2 years people would rather make a trip to the grocery store than a trip to the moon because of the economy,'' Hall said. ``As things are turning around, we need to stay in touch with space'' and the science spinoffs it provides.

It was the Columbia accident that helped force a discussion of where NASA should venture beyond the three remaining space shuttles and the international space station. The panel that investigated the disaster called for a clearly defined long-term mission _ a national vision for space that has been missing for three decades.

Astronauts last walked on the moon in 1972; in all, 12 men tread the lunar surface over a 3 1/2-year period. This time, the president favors a permanent station, administration officials said.

Bush's father, on the 20th anniversary of the first manned moon landing, made a similar call for lunar colonies and a Mars expedition. But the plan was prohibitively expensive _ an estimated $400 billion to $500 billion _ and went nowhere.

No one knows what the new venture might cost or how NASA would pay for it.

House Science Committee spokeswoman Heidi Tringe said lawmakers on the panel had yet to be briefed on the specifics.

Earlier this week, Bush put in a congratulatory call to officials in charge of NASA's latest Mars rover. He called the Spirit rover's successful landing a ``reconfirmation of the American spirit of exploration.'' Another rover is due to arrive at the red planet in two weeks.

NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe said the robots represent an advance team charged with assessing the planet's conditions.

``Once we figure out how to deal with the human effects, we can then send humans to explore in real time,'' O'Keefe said Wednesday.

Interplanetary exploration depends on ``what we learn and whether we can develop the power and ... propulsion capabilities necessary to get there faster and stay longer and potentially support humans in doing so,'' O'Keefe said in response to a question on the White House Web site this week.

Many space buffs see the moon as a necessary place to test the equipment and techniques that would be needed by astronauts on Mars. It's closer, just three days away versus six months away for the red planet.

Visionaries say observatories could be built on the moon and mining camps could gather helium-3 for conversion into fuel for use back on Earth.

Others, however, contend that astronauts should make a beeline to Mars.

Still others, including John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth, believes the nation should complete and fully maximize the international space station before dashing anywhere else.