WASHINGTON – A bipartisan group of about two dozen senators concerned with NASA's future last month demanded the White House articulate "a bold and coherent national mission" for the space program.
President Bush did not include such a statement in his Wednesday speech at the 100th anniversary of the Wright brothers' first air flight, as some analysts expected, but the White House may be poised to make such an announcement soon.
"The question is, do we have the will to do it? Do the president and the Congress have the will to pay the bills, to do this job?" asked Capt. Alan Bean, lunar module pilot on Apollo 12, and a proponent of making the effort to send a manned spacecraft to Mars.
"We're going to do it eventually. Maybe it isn't this year. Maybe it isn't this century. But we're going to move out to the rest of the universe some day," Bean told Fox News.
Howard McCurdy, chair of the department of public administration at American University, agreed that Mars is the goal, but he doesn't expect the president to issue one grand space challenge. Bush is more likely to issue a series of objectives, perhaps during his State of the Union speech, than to make a big policy pronouncement, he said.
The White House "doesn’t want to go back to the moon. It wants to go to Mars," said McCurdy, who added that any plans to return to the moon would be part of a larger objective of getting U.S. astronauts to the Red Planet.
"The reason [the administration] wants to go back to the moon is the same reason you climb Mt. Everest by climbing Mt. Rainier," he said.
McCurdy said a new space exploration initiative would also help redefine NASA's mission and develop a long-range vision for the 45-year-old National Aeronautics and Space Administration (search).
For too long, NASA has "tried to fit too many objectives, and it didn’t do any of them very well," he said.
The White House and NASA have remained mum about any new direction for the agency, but NASA has been evaluating its program and reorganizing in the aftermath of February's Columbia (search) shuttle disaster. For several months, NASA officials have also been holding high-level meetings with the White House.
Testifying on Capitol Hill on behalf of NASA's 2004 budget request, NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe (search) expressed a desire to maintain the momentum for more technical breakthroughs.
"We cannot stop dreaming. We cannot stop pursuing our ambitious goals. We cannot disappoint future generations when we stand at the threshold of great advances," O'Keefe said in April.
Carved out in the stalled 2004 omnibus budget package is $15.5 billion for NASA, an $80 million increase over 2003, and just about the same sum requested by the president.
But some budget watchdogs and other analysts warn that a space mission would be too costly at this time.
"We have a $500 billion dollar deficit. Let's start taking care of business at home before we start spending billions of dollars," said Citizens Against Government Waste (search) Vice President David Williams.
"One has to be skeptical, given the sorry state of NASA and budget deficits, that billions will be found for moon missions," added American Enterprise Institute (search) political expert Norm Ornstein.
Ornstein speculated that the president would propose a space mission not merely for the sake of science, but also to frame his 2004 re-election campaign.
"This is an attempt to show that a Bush second term will not be a caretaker one, but filled with bold ideas," he said, adding that he doubts any space initiative will be politically viable in light of the nation's budget woes.
McCurdy, too, suggested that Bush's primary objective behind a space mission would be to increase his popularity, and predicted the president would take a page right out of President John F. Kennedy's playbook. In 1961, Kennedy promised that NASA would put a man on the moon within one decade. NASA delivered.
"My guess is that this is not a moon initiative but a way of rekindling confidence and hope that there is something to our vision that goes beyond the war on terror," McCurdy said, adding that the president may attempt to include other initiatives — such as finding a cure to breast cancer in 50 years — in a visionary speech to kick off his re-election campaign.
It would allow "Americans to think beyond the current trauma and terror so that the campaign isn’t just about survival, it's about something more inspirational," he said.
Emmett H. Buell, professor of political science at Denison University, agreed that given the budget deficits, now might not be the right moment for an expensive space initiative. But he said he does not think Bush's intentions are an "election ploy."
"Of course we're in the nominating cycle, but I'm struck by the raw premise that every single thing Bush says or does is cleared by [Bush senior adviser] Karl Rove (search). I think people underestimate Bush when they treat him as if he were [former President] Bill Clinton — just a totally political animal; everything is for sale. That isn’t Bush," Buell said.
However, he added, "There has to be limit to the money we spend. This just doesn't seem to be the right time to do something like this."
Williams agreed, saying that policies other than the space mission would have a bigger political impact for the president.
"How about a strong economy? How about reducing the debt? That’s something that would really make Americans rally around this country," he said.