The Bush administration is reviewing America's human space exploration program, and the outcome could be a new plan that takes the U.S. space program beyond Earth orbit, where it has been for 23 years. Speculation in the news media is that the government might announce a plan to send astronauts back to the moon or to Mars.
The Bush White House has a reputation for keeping secrets, and its review of ways to energize the country's human spaceflight program is no exception. Even renowned George Washington University space policy analyst John Logsdon has not been able to learn anything about the review. He was a member of the independent board of experts who investigated the February break-up of the space shuttle Columbia.
"It's being held very closely inside the government, so those of us on the outside are not privy to the options," he said.
But Mr. Logsdon says one thing is certain: The rationale for the policy review is the Columbia disaster, which killed seven astronauts, and has halted space shuttle missions until at least late next year.
"I think it's the aftermath of the Columbia accident and the criticism in the report of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board that the country had been drifting in human spaceflight without any overarching goal or guiding mandate for 30 years," he said. "The Congress has been calling for the president to articulate such a mandate, and I think the White house has decided that it's time to do it."
Members of Congress who oversee U.S. space policy have heard a lot of professional criticism of NASA's human space program. The program's chief goal is to finish building and operate the international space station, an orbiting research laboratory where many experiments are designed to determine how well humans survive for long periods in the weightlessness of space. The idea is to use this knowledge to help astronauts endure a long voyage into the solar system.
NASA's former head of space science, Wesley Huntress, told a U.S. Senate committee recently that the present space program has not captured the U.S. taxpayer's imagination.
"I believe that the American public wants an adventurous space program to exciting destinations in the solar system, but they are not getting it. We're stuck in low Earth orbit when the challenge is to move outward to those exotic places in the solar system where we have been given tantalizing glimpses from our robotic exploration program," he said.
Recent news reports say President Bush's aides are considering a new moon exploration program. Other speculation is about a human journey to Mars. Mr. Bush's father endorsed both as president in 1989 on the 20th anniversary of the first U.S. moon landing, but neither came to fruition.
John Logsdon says the two goals are not mutually exclusive. "Going back to the moon, this time to establish a scientific outpost, makes sense," he said. "The moon is relatively nearby and there is some interesting science to be done there, plus qualifying the systems for going to other, more distant places, particularly Mars."
But the president of the Mars Society, Robert Zubrin, told Senators recently that he and other experts want the United States to bypass the moon.
"What should the goal be? As Dr. Huntress has said, it should be humans to Mars. Mars is where the science is, Mars is where the challenge is, and Mars is where the future is. However, it shouldn't be humans to Mars in 50 years. It should be humans to Mars in 10 years," he said.
Whatever the Bush administration decides, it appears to be in no hurry to rush its review. White House spokesman Scott McClellan has rejected press conjecture that President Bush will make an announcement at December 17 ceremonies in North Carolina commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Wright brothers' first airplane flight.
"That review is ongoing at this point. There are no plans to make any policy announcements on our space program at any immediate upcoming speeches," he said.