- When President Bush delivers a speech recognizing the
centenary of heavier-than-air-powered flight December 17, it is expected
that he will proffer a bold vision of renewed space flight, with at its
center a return to the moon, perhaps even establishment of a permanent
presence there. If he does, it will mean that he has decided the United
States should once again become a space-faring nation. For more than 30
years America's manned space program has limited itself to low Earth orbit;
indeed, everyone under the age of 31 - more than 125 million Americans
- was born since an American last set foot on the moon.
- The speech will come at a time when events are converging
to force some important decisions about the future of American efforts
in space. China has put a man in orbit, plans a launch of three Sinonauts
together, and has announced its own lunar program. The space shuttle is
grounded, and its smaller sibling, the "orbital space plane,"
may not be built. The International Space Station, behind schedule, over
budget, and of limited utility, has been scaled back post-Columbia.
- The content of the speech does not appear to be in doubt;
the only question is timing. While those who have formulated it have argued
that it be delivered on the anniversary of the Wright Brothers' first powered
flight, there exists a slight possibility that it will instead be incorporated
in the State of the Union address at the end of January.
- This has its own, less triumphant, significance, which
is in the form of a chilling coincidence. Every American who has died in
a spacecraft has done so within one calendar week: The Apollo 204 fire
on January 27, 1967; the Challenger disaster on January 28, 1986; and the
loss of Columbia on February 1, 2003.
- If the president goes ahead with the plan to announce
an ambitious new program to carry Americans beyond Earth's immediate gravitational
pull, he will argue that the new lunar explorations are justified not only
for what they themselves might produce but also as a means of developing
the technology and skills necessary for a mission to Mars, which is expected
to be mentioned, though in less-specific terms, in the address.
- Observers might note a familiar ring to the proposal.
On July 20, 1989, President George H. W. Bush marked the 20th anniversary
of the first Apollo moon landing with a speech at the National Air and
Space Museum in Washington in which he called for a permanent American
presence on the moon and, ultimately, a mission to Mars.
- That address led to the formation of a group called the
"Space Exploration Initiative," headed by Vice President Quayle
and NASA Administrator Richard Truly, which in the spring of 1991 released
a report, "America at the Threshold." It set a long-term goal
of landing Americans on Mars, with space activities in the interim leading
up to that goal. First, it recommended, would be "Space Station Freedom"
- now the ISS - followed by a return to the moon, in large measure to develop
and test systems for keeping people alive on a Mars journey.
- The development of rocket boosters more powerful than
the mighty Saturn V that lifted Apollo astronauts to the moon would be
necessary, the report said, as would development of nuclear systems for
providing power aboard in-transit spacecraft, and nuclear-powered rockets,
to be employed outside Earth's atmosphere, where they could be used on
long missions without the need to carry enormous supplies of conventional
rocket propellant. None of the recommendations was carried out as envisioned
at the time; the only one that got off the ground at all is the space station.
- The president's speech could breathe new life into a
moribund space program whose recent history has been beset by disappointment
and failure. The space shuttle proved neither as reliable or as inexpensive
as its proponents had promised. In 18 years of flight (the shuttle was
grounded for 30 months following the Challenger disaster, and has been
grounded since the loss of Columbia February 1), half of the original shuttle
fleet has been lost to catastrophic failure, along with 14 astronauts.
The cost of a shuttle mission has hovered around $500 million despite early
claims that it would be much less and would allow payloads to be carried
aloft for as little as $50 per pound. The launch schedule has been unreliable,
with many space customers wondering if their satellites would ever get
to orbit; in some cases satellites have remained on the ground so long
that their power supplies ran down and had to be replaced before launch.
The shuttle program has been so frustrating to scientists that it was characterized
by Bruce Murray, former head of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, as "a
giant WPA in the sky."
- Some critics say the space station offers little or nothing
more, with a far-higher price tag. It is "international" as to
the origin of some of its parts and some of its crew and, while the shuttle
is grounded, the craft used to ferry the maintenance crews and supplies,
but most of it is paid for by the United States. Some critics have argued
that it is less a space station than an extension of the State Department.
- Charles Krauthammer has noted that an orbiting United
Nations is unlikely to be any less foolish than one fixed on planet Earth.
"The moon and Mars are beckoning," he wrote in January, 2000.
"So why are we spending so much of our resources building a tinker-toy
space station? In part because, a quarter-century late, we still need something
to justify the shuttle. Yet the space station's purpose has shrunk to almost
nothing. No one takes seriously its claims to be a platform for real science."
Establishment of a permanent moon base and research and engineering work
toward a flight to Mars would certainly replenish the idea of a space program
engaged in real exploration.
- Whether a return to the moon would spark the public's
imagination as it did in the 1960s is unknown. The world was transfixed
July 20, 1969, as Apollo 11 landed and Neil Armstrong became the first
man to stand on a celestial body other than Earth. But public and political
enthusiasm for the moon soon waned. There were five more landings; the
final three lunar shots were canceled. The last moon flight was in December
1972. No human has achieved escape velocity since.
- A new space initiative would face numerous hurdles, including
congressional Democrats who in the present political climate would be likely
to challenge a presidential declaration that the sky is blue.
- Additionally, congressional distrust of NASA is vigorous
on both sides of the aisle following the Columbia accident. Rep. Sherwood
Boehlert (R., N.Y.), and Rep. Ralph Hall, (D., Tex.), recently asked that
NASA stop work on the $13 billion "orbital space plane," a smaller,
cheaper space shuttle, until Congress and the president agree on NASA's
goals. Others in Congress have argued that the space shuttle should remain
on the ground permanently. The fact that a revamped space program would
employ many people - especially in places such as Silicon Valley, where
unemployment among engineers is high - might blunt much criticism, however.
- There are ideas and proposals that could offset concerns
as to the value of returning to the moon and, perhaps, traveling beyond.
Geologists are eager to take lunar-core samples, which could tell much
about the solar system's past and how the moon itself was formed. It has
recently been suggested that sunlight collected on the moon and beamed
to Earth could provide a no-pollution source of power. Bill McInnis, a
leading NASA engineer before he resigned in despair over shuttle-safety
issues and ultimately took his own life, long lobbied for a return to the
moon and talked of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence and the
folly of putting our antennae on Earth. "The signals we're looking
for are so weak that the effects of somebody turning on a light a hundred
miles away are stronger," he said. "The place to do it, the place
to be free of Earthbound interference - that's the other side of the moon.
The moon is the ultimate space station, it is where we can really learn
things." Certainly, long-term lunar experience would facilitate a
trip to Mars.
- NASA's budget has been far short of lavish since the
last time the agency was aiming for the moon. The president has remarked
to members of the White House space group that he does not favor a huge
increase in spending for NASA projects. Whether he has changed his mind,
and the extent to which he is willing to sell an ambitious new program
of space exploration remains to be seen. If Bush does deliver the speech
as planned, it would be another opportunity for him to finish business
left pending when his father left office a decade ago.
- Dennis E. Powell is a freelance writer, currently at
work on a history of the space-shuttle program.