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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, December 5, 2003

A second giant leap?

Advertiser News Services

After decades of watching astronauts circle Earth, space visionaries finally have reason for optimism: NASA and other agencies are working with the White House on a bold, new course of exploration — a possible return to the moon.

Neither the White House nor NASA will discuss specifics. Nor will they answer the hopes of pro-space optimists who have been buzzing for weeks over whether President Bush may use the 100th anniversary of the Wright brothers' flight on Dec. 17 as the time for a space announcement.

They will only say the interagency effort began in July. "That work is ongoing and will continue," said Glenn Mahone, NASA's chief spokesman.

America's golden age of manned lunar exploration lasted less than four years. It began with Neil Armstrong's "one small step for man" in 1969 and ended with the Apollo 17 mission in December 1972, the culmination of the space race with the Soviet Union.

Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kansas, even talked about a space race between the United States and China, which put its first astronaut into space this fall.

Administration officials said yesterday that new lunar exploration — and possibly a U.S. base on the moon — is among programs such as a campaign to promote longevity or fight childhood illness or hunger that President Bush's aides are considering as they sift ideas for a fresh agenda for the final year of his term.

Agencies and task forces in several parts of the government have been assigned to determine the cost and feasibility of a variety of such major ideas, which could cost billions of dollars at a time when the nation is running a substantial budget deficit.

An interagency group, for instance, has been working since August on a blueprint for interplanetary human flight over the next 20 or 30 years to give NASA a new mission after the Feb. 1 disintegration of the space shuttle Columbia. Officials said the initiative is likely to involve cooperation between NASA and the military.

Proving ground for Mars

America on the moon

• Six Apollo missions, with 12 astronauts landing on lunar surface

• Neil Armstrong, first man on moon, July 20, 1969

• Eugene Cernan, last man on moon, Dec. 14, 1972

• DISTANCE FROM EARTH: 226,000 to 252,000 miles

• TRAVEL TIME: 111 hours

Rep. Bart Gordon, D-Tenn., a senior member of the House Science Committee, favors a human return to the moon and a Dec. 17 pronouncement. He said he made his views known last month to Vice President Dick Cheney, who quietly is heading up the task force on the future of spaceflight.

Everett Gibson, a NASA scientist who studied moon rocks from the Apollo astronauts, said manned lunar missions could be a stepping stone to missions to Mars.

"The moon can be used as a development ground to allow us to better operate on Mars," Gibson said this week.

The moon is just three days away while Mars is at least six months away, and the lunar surface therefore could be a safe place to shake out Martian equipment. Observatories also could be built on the moon, and mining camps could be set up to gather helium-3 for conversion into fuel for use back on Earth.

Gordon sees Mars as a drawn-out affair, and "you can't keep Americans' attention or Congress' appropriation focused on a 20-year goal." The moon, on the other hand, "is an obtainable goal on a reasonable time frame," he said yesterday.

Besides, other countries like China have their eyes on the moon, Gordon noted, and "we don't want to not be there."

The Chinese have spoken about plans to land humans on the moon and to establish a base there.

"You've got the Chinese and others making plans to send probes and even humans to the moon," Brownback said yesterday. "I don't think we want other countries to get ahead of us in this race."

China 'changed the equation'

An adviser close to NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe, who asked not to be identified, told USA Today that the Chinese launch and their interest in a manned lunar mission "changed the equation" for NASA in putting a new focus on the moon.

The development of big ideas for Bush's 2004 agenda is being led by Bush's senior adviser, Karl Rove, the officials said. Administration officials said options have not been presented to the president, let alone decided, but the search is active for ambitious initiatives to flesh out a re-election agenda that also includes limiting lawsuits, making the tax cuts permanent and adding private investment accounts to the Social Security system.

One person who has been consulted by the White House said some aides appear to relish the idea of a "Kennedy moment" for Bush, referring to the 1962 call by President John F. Kennedy for the nation to land a man on the moon, and return him safely to Earth, by the end of the decade.

The biggest argument against a revived moon program appears to be its cost, especially because the government faces a half-trillion-dollar budget deficit in 2004.

Howard McCurdy, a space policy expert at American University in Washington, said the Apollo mission cost $150 billion to $175 billion in 2003 dollars, and that a new effort would also be costly. But he said that's not really the point: "In some ways, it's like a yacht. If you have to ask, you can't afford it."

Launch vehicles needed

Meanwhile, reaching the moon may be as much of a challenge as it was 34 years ago. For instance, there are only three remaining Saturn V missiles like the ones that launched the Apollo capsules. Two were assembled from surplus parts after the last three Apollo flights were canceled, and one is a test vehicle never intended to go into space.

Bush aides said they are wary of repeating what they consider the mistakes of Bush's father. On July 20, 1989, the 20th anniversary of the first human moon landing, President George H.W. Bush issued a call for a sustained commitment to human exploration of the solar system, with a return to the moon as a stepping stone to the main destination — Mars. NASA responded with a budget-shattering $400 billion plan to answer that call, and it swiftly sank under its own weight.

But for an initiative coming from the president, a senior administration official said, bigger is better. The official said the planning was born of an effort to follow up Bush's emergency plan for AIDS relief in his last State of the Union address, which called for spending $15 billion over five years to help countries in Africa and the Caribbean fight the pandemic.

This official said Bush's closest aides are promoting big initiatives on the theory that they contribute to Bush's image as a decisive leader even if people disagree with some of the specifics. "Iraq was big. AIDS is big," the official said. "Big works. Big grabs attention."

The Associated Press, USA Today and Washington Post contributed to this report.