President Bush's new space commission has embarked on its effort to translate his broad plan for human visits to the moon and Mars into reality. The commissioners say the biggest challenge is not technology but sustaining public interest and political commitment for the decades necessary to complete the task.
When President Bush called for returning astronauts to the moon as a first step to moving on to Mars, he outlined a program that will take generations. The return to the moon is not envisioned before 2015 and getting people to Mars will require new technologies that currently defy a schedule.
As part of his plan, Mr. Bush established a commission to advise the government how to organize it. At its first meeting in Washington, its chairman, former U.S. Defense Department official Pete Aldridge, said the biggest obstacle to meeting the moon-Mars goal is maintaining public interest over several generations and several presidencies.
"How do you keep the value of space before the American people, in fact, all of mankind in a continuous way? If you can't do that, then you'll achieve what we've achieved in the past, spikes and valleys in the space budget according to the particular whims of the political leaders at the time," he said.
Panel member Neil Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York, says one measure the commissioners will discuss is whether to recommend re-establishing a high-level national space council with membership across several government agencies and chaired by the vice-president, as in the first Bush administration from 1989 to 1993. He points out that it is not in the national interest for President Bush's successor to lose interest in the moon-Mars program.
"One way to protect against that is to ensure that there is interest that is not only bipartisan but at a high level that will offer a level of continuity from one administration to the next," he said. "Such a plan as described has that hope because it represents multiple agencies and we would hope it would have the ear of the president."
Mr. Tyson says history shows that huge national expenditures, whether for pyramids or cathedrals, Columbus' voyage to the Americas, or development of nuclear weapons, are sustained only if linked to economic return, defense, or praise of royalty or deity. He notes that the promise of scientific exploration has never driven major national programs and doubts that it would sustain interest in Mr. Bush's new space policy.
"While we need to make sure science and exploration are part of any discussion, in the end, learning from history, the public will have to be convinced of the truth of the space program in our lives, and that is the actual role it plays in driving our economic strength," he said.
But a witness before the president's moon-Mars commission disagrees. "If all we do is talk about our own industrial base and how great this is for jobs, I don't think this mission gets furthered in any way," he said.
Mark Bitterman is with the U.S. business promotion group the Chamber of Commerce. He believes the public is interested in space exploration for itself and cites the wide attention to the Mars rovers and the Hubble Space Telescope.
"There is a lot of excitement out there," he said. "I think once the possibility of these new discoveries begins to become clear and they are discussed in the schools, kids get excited about it, that's what I think will really matter."
Mr. Bitterman adds that the Hollywood film industry could promote Mr. Bush's new space initiative.
The president's moon-Mars commission heard from another witness who suggested that including other countries would help maintain political momentum. Cort Durocher of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, an organization of aerospace engineers, scientists, executives and academics, says international participation offers many benefits.
"We could enrich the character of the initiative, we could make it more affordable fore the United States, we could add redundancy or robustness through the use of parallel space transportation and orbital systems. It also might give it that compelling interest so that it would be a global political legitimacy rather than just a national one," he said.
President Bush himself mentioned possible international involvement when he announced his new space vision, but he said the United States would lead the program.
The suggestions his moon-Mars commission has heard are the first of many it will gather from experts and ordinary citizens across the country. The panel is to make its recommendations to the president in four months.