President Bush's aides are considering a new lunar exploration program and other unifying national goals, including a campaign to promote longevity or fight childhood illness or hunger, as they sift ideas for a fresh agenda for the final year of his term, administration officials said yesterday.
Several government agencies and task forces have been assigned to determine the cost and feasibility of a variety of major ideas, which could cost billions of dollars at a time when the nation is running a substantial budget deficit.
An interagency group led by the White House, for instance, has been working since August on a blueprint for interplanetary human flight over the next 20 to 30 years to give NASA a new mission after the Feb. 1 disintegration of the space shuttle Columbia. Plans call for Bush to issue an ambitious new national vision for space travel by early next year, and officials said the initiative is likely to involve cooperation between NASA and the military.
The development of big ideas for Bush's 2004 agenda is being led by the president's senior adviser, Karl Rove, the officials said. Administration officials said options have not been presented to the president, let alone decided, but the search is active for ambitious initiatives to flesh out a reelection agenda that also includes limiting lawsuits, making the tax cuts permanent and adding private investment accounts to the Social Security system.
One person consulted by the White House said some aides appear to relish the idea of a "Kennedy moment" for Bush, referring to the 1962 call by President John F. Kennedy for the nation to land a man on the moon and return him safely to Earth by the end of the decade.
A senior administration official said that "a lot of simultaneous efforts have been launched" in a quest for such an idea, and that the efforts have been underway since at least late summer. The official said the planning was born of an effort to follow up Bush's emergency plan for AIDS relief in this year's State of the Union address, which called for spending $15 billion over five years to help African and Caribbean countries fight the pandemic.
This official said Bush's closest aides are promoting big initiatives on the theory that they contribute to Bush's image as a decisive leader even if people disagree with some of the specifics. "Iraq was big. AIDS is big," the official said. "Big works. Big grabs attention."
An ambitious plan for space travel is one possibility, though Republican officials said they are wary of repeating what they consider the mistakes of Bush's father. On July 20, 1989, the 20th anniversary of the first human moon landing, President George H.W. Bush issued a call for a sustained commitment to human exploration of the solar system, with a return to the moon as a steppingstone to the main destination -- Mars. NASA responded with a budget-shattering $400 billion plan to fulfill that goal, and it swiftly sank under its own weight.
Vice President Cheney recently discussed possibilities with lawmakers with jurisdiction over the space program but did not tip his hand. Options that have been considered by the administration include a permanent outpost on the moon and a human mission to Mars.
Although much of the scientific and emotional focus has been on Mars over the past decade, the buzz inside NASA has seemed to shift toward a return of man to the moon, officials at the space agency said.
"The drumbeat is getting louder," Wendell Mendell, manager of the Office for Human Exploration Science at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, said in a telephone interview. Mendell has long advocated a return to the moon. "The tables and lists being created here are consistent" with a lunar initiative, he said.
NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe has steadfastly declined to discuss the ongoing review of space policy, except to acknowledge that it is "moving forward."
Edward Weiler, NASA's chief of space sciences, said in an interview yesterday that he commissioned a major study to determine space science priorities, which was completed by a panel of the National Academy of Sciences earlier this year.
"I was surprised that the moon turned out to be one of their targets," he said. The panel listed the moon as one of five prime targets, he said, primarily because a crater at its South Pole contains some of the oldest, if not the oldest, exposed material in the solar system.