By Marc Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.
Envisioned by Bush and energetically pushed and promoted by Griffin, the plan has had broad support in Congress and within much of the space community. But some of that support has weakened over the past four years. The overall NASA budget has remained relatively static, financial and some technical surprises have pushed back the proposed launch dates, and public excitement has been modest -- especially for a moon settlement.
As Friedman put it, Constellation is seen by many as "Apollo on steroids," rather than as an inspiring new direction. The moon settlements, he said, are "a plan that could trap us and our space resources for years to come."
Robert Farquhar, a veteran of the space program and now Charles A. Lindbergh Chair for Space History at the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum, is another skeptic. He said lunar settlements would provide little useful information for later voyages to Mars, and learning to live on the moon involves different technologies and skills than venturing deeper into space.
"Why not go to the near-Earth asteroids?" he asks, echoing others' question. "It's new and exciting, and will prepare us better for going to Mars. Going to the moon is a dead end."
Friedman and Farquhar are two of 50 space experts invited to the upcoming Stanford meeting, which will be closed to the public. But Friedman said it could lead to open meetings to discuss what is commonly called the Constellation "architecture."
Several NASA officials are to be at the meeting, as well as John M. Logsdon, director of George Washington University's Space Policy Institute and a member of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board. Logsdon said that in the broadest terms, Constellation is a proper response to the board's conclusion that NASA should undertake only space exploration so important and meaningful that it warrants the high cost and risk.
"If we stop and go in a different direction now, we will have lost a lot of the last four years and a lot of momentum," he said. "That would not be the kind of sustained national commitment that the Columbia board called for."
Richard J. Gilbrech, NASA's associate administrator for exploration, said the notion that the agency could send astronauts to Mars or to closer asteroids without first returning to the moon is misguided.
"I personally think we're on the best path to Mars," he said. "Going straight to a 500-day mission there, that's a very far leap for anyone to imagine. Why not prove out the technologies from a body three days away?"
Some of the sniping at Constellation doubtless arises from the resentment many space scientists felt about the loss of funding for unmanned missions. As the cost of designing and building Constellation increases, these researchers are concerned that budgets for NASA's robotic missions and other pure science efforts will shrink -- something they say is already happening.
Current and former officials of NASA say its science programs have never been as well funded as they are now, but they acknowledge that the agency is in a financial bind. Although Bush announced his space vision with fanfare, the rhetoric has not been matched with the new funding needed.
In addition, upgrading the space shuttles after the Columbia accident proved to be far more costly than expected and has taken up much of any new funding NASA gets. Scott J. "Doc" Horowitz, who resigned last fall as NASA's associate director for exploration, said the agency also got squeezed by almost $500 million in congressional earmarks and by the White House Office of Management and Budget, which consistently allocated the minimum funding possible.
Sens. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) and Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.) pushed to get NASA $1 billion more for fiscal 2008 to pay for unexpected shuttle costs. But the bill did not make it out of a House-Senate conference late last year, in large part because the administration opposed it.
NASA officials understand the sometimes tepid public response to Constellation, and acknowledge that it will never have as high a profile as did Apollo, which became part of the high-stakes space race between the United States and the former Soviet Union.
Still, the agency is hoping to recapture some of that magic, a desire that sent NASA last year to the New York advertising firm Interbrand. The agency will pay it $160,000 to better "brand" Constellation and other projects.
People around the world know the Apollo history, said NASA's Gilbrech, and "if we can be make it anything like that for Constellation, that's what we want."