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Bush at NASA HQ
President George W. Bush speaks at NASA Headquarters last week. How do we move from simply articulating a vision to achieving it? (credit: White House)

Looking beyond vision

For much of 2003, one of the biggest complaints about NASA, and national space policy in general, was a lack of “vision”. That term, widely used but rarely clearly defined, was meant to suggest that NASA lacked a clear mandate and a set of goals beyond operating the shuttle, assembling the space station, and carrying out a potpourri of other science and technology programs. By late 2003 there was no shortage of suggested visions, but also no consensus on what that vision should be: a return to the Moon, human exploration of Mars, or something else entirely. (See “The vision thing”, November 10, 2003, and “Vision revision”, December 1, 2003.)

That uncertainty evaporated—at least for the near term—on Wednesday, when President Bush unveiled his new space initiative at NASA Headquarters. Under the somewhat unwieldy title “A Renewed Spirit of Discovery”, the president laid out his vision for the future for NASA: completing the station and retiring the shuttle by 2010, developing a new “Crew Exploration Vehicle” (CEV) that would replace the human spaceflight capability of the shuttle by 2014, and restarting exploration of the Moon by 2008, leading to a human return the Moon between 2015 and 2020. Human missions to Mars were included in the plan as something that could be carried out at some unspecified date after 2020, once robotic missions to Mars and human missions to the Moon provided enough knowledge and expertise about how to accomplish such an expedition.

The details of the plan were not too surprising: nearly all of them had leaked to the media in the week prior to his speech. Even the White House posted a fact sheet about the plan at least a half-hour before Bush spoke at NASA HQ. Although Mars enthusiasts might be disappointed that human missions to Mars have been pushed out until some time after 2020, the plan overall does possess some degree of logic, and doesn’t appear to require huge amounts of additional funding for NASA. Does that mean that the problem of NASA’s lack of vision has been solved? Hardly. In many respects the battle for the future of the space agency has just begun.

Budget confusion

Much of the debate about the new initiative, both before and after Bush’s speech, centered on how much it would cost. Shortly after word leaked out about the plan on January 8, critics derided the plan because of its perceived excessive cost. Within a few days editorial writers and politicians—including Democratic presidential candidates Dick Gephardt and Joe Lieberman—slapped the label “trillion-dollar” on the program, and it stuck.

This “trillion-dollar” adjective is interesting because not only does it have no apparent basis in fact, those who have used it have made little effort to defend its use. The closest effort was by Gregg Easterbrook, a columnist for The New Republic who dabbles in space policy issues. (Easterbrook is perhaps best known, though, as the author of the entertaining “Tuesday Morning Quarterback” weekly column about professional football.) He concluded in a January 9 column that George H.W. Bush’s Space Exploration Initiative (SEI) would cost $600 billion in current-year dollars, then added an additional $400 billion for a Moon base, even though the SEI included a lunar facility as part of the overall plan. Interestingly, in an essay in the current issue of Time, Easterbrook avoids using the trillion-dollar estimate, sticking instead to the $600-billion SEI figure.

This “trillion-dollar” adjective is interesting because not only does it have no apparent basis in fact, those who have used it have made little effort to defend its use.

At the other extreme, the administration may have unintentionally confused a number of people when Bush stated that he would add $1 billion to NASA’s budget over the next five years. That seemed a far cry from earlier reports that suggested NASA would see budget increases of five percent a year over the next five years. Some pointed out that the increase—an average of $200 million a year—would be insufficient to compensate for inflation even at today’s modest rates.

However, that $1 billion is being added to a budget that already includes some modest increases. Prior to the new plan NASA was looking at a five-year budget plan that totaled $86 billion. Given the approximately $15.4 billion the agency gets in 2004, that plan already had factored into it an average annual growth rate of about 3.5 percent: enough to account for inflation plus a little bit extra. The new plan changes that to a five-percent growth rate for the first three years and then one percent for the following two, enough to eke out an additional billion over five years for the agency. That extra funding comes at a price: those two outyears—2008 and 2009—will get increases under the current plan that will likely be below the inflation rate (which was 1.9% in 2003), giving the agency, in essence, minor budget cuts in those years.

Plan farsightedness

Another interesting aspect of the plan is its farsightedness. If you went to someone familiar with space policy about six months ago and told him or her that, late this decade, the shuttle would be flying to complete the assembly of the ISS, unmanned test flights of a new crewed vehicle would be underway, and robotic missions would begin again to the Moon, that person might have well concluded that there had been no new space initiative. Bush’s plan is notable for its lack of significant near-future milestones.

With few significant achievements over the next five years, it would be possible for Bush’s successor to redirect the program to different aims, including those that don’t include missions to the Moon or Mars, with little wasted money.

Most of what NASA will accomplish between now and the end of the decade are projects that, in one form or another, the agency was planning to do anyway. The shuttle was going to return to flight and the station was going to be completed, one way or another. NASA was working on the Orbital Space Plane, which will likely morph into the CEV. And, although NASA had yet to commit to a robotic lunar mission, a sample-return mission to the Moon’s South Pole-Aitken Basin, rated highly by planetary scientists in a recent review, was one of four “strawman” missions being considered for NASA’s New Frontiers program later this decade. There will certainly be a lot of preparatory work for future missions, but that work will likely be behind the scenes, largely out of view of the public.

This approach raises some interesting possibilities and concerns. Five years from now—January 20, 2009, the end of a hypothetical second term for Bush—the shuttle will still be flying, the station will be in the final stages of assembly, and the CEV will be undergoing unmanned tests. With few significant achievements during that time, it certainly would be possible for Bush’s successor to redirect the program to different aims, including those that don’t include missions to the Moon or Mars, with little wasted money. (If Bush loses in November, his Democratic successor will almost likely junk the plan in favor of something else.) However, if Bush and NASA succeed in selling the plan to the American public, it could survive a change in administrations.

page 2: how to sell the plan? >>