Acceptance Slow for Bush's Space Plan
Saturday, February 2, 2008
Four years after President Bush called for Americans to return to the moon and then voyage on to Mars, NASA is spending hundreds of millions of dollars to design, build and test the spacecraft that would make it possible.
But the effort has yet to capture the public's imagination as the Apollo project did in the 1960s, something tacitly acknowledged recently when NASA hired a New York advertising firm to help "brand" the program, now dubbed Constellation.
Moreover, some top space exploration advocates, policy experts and scientists, including some who initially supported the program, are questioning whether it can ever achieve its goals at a price taxpayers will accept. The doubters are sufficiently worried that they have organized a conference for Feb. 12-13 at Stanford University to debate the issue.
"With a new administration coming in soon, we have to seriously think about whether Constellation is doing what it should," said Louis Friedman, head of the Planetary Society. He was an active early supporter of much of the Bush plan but is now helping to organize the Stanford meeting.
"Some of us have real doubts about whether the money will be available for the Bush plan, or whether the public supports Constellation enough to see it through," he said.
NASA, meanwhile, is mounting a vigorous defense of the steps it has taken to turn Bush's vision into a new generation of rockets and crew capsules, a lunar lander and ultimately a settlement on the moon.
NASA Administrator Michael D. Griffin gave a forceful answer to skeptics in a speech to the Space Transportation Association last month and in a statement responding to published critiques. He said Constellation is the kind of grand mission called for by the panel that investigated the space shuttle Columbia disaster, which occurred five years ago yesterday. Changing it now, he said, would be costly and ill-advised.
"The conference organizers have assigned sole responsibility for our new civil space exploration strategy to President Bush, ignoring the hugely bipartisan -- actually non-partisan -- support it has received in Congress," Griffin said in the statement.
"No plan can fully satisfy all the many constituencies we have in what I wish were a true 'space community,' " he said. "But as the [Columbia panel] noted, it would be far worse to continue the prior multi-decade lack of any strategic plan, to continue dithering and debating."
The Constellation program, outlined by Bush in 2004 and ratified in large part by Congress a year later, is the nation's most ambitious effort to send astronauts beyond lower-Earth orbit since Apollo was ended 35 years ago. It calls for spending $230 billion over the next two decades, according to the Government Accountability Office, with about $8 billion in contracts already let and almost $3 billion spent.
Work to design, build and test the Orion crew capsule is underway, as is work on the Ares I rocket that would launch it into space. The first test flight of an Ares I prototype is scheduled for April 2009, and the first manned flight is set for spring of 2015, with a maiden voyage to the international space station a year later.
By 2011, work is due to begin in earnest on other key components: a lunar lander and the larger Ares V rocket that will carry cargo and the lander. Current plans call for a two-stage trip to the moon, with Ares I and Ares V blasting off at the same time with their payloads, then rendezvousing and coupling in orbit. An "Earth departure" rocket would then propel the joined capsule and lander to the moon. That first lunar voyage is targeted for 2020.