Presidential review on space policy heading to closure

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WASHINGTON - The year-long review of future directions for the U.S. space program is rapidly drawing towards selection of a policy path, Spacelift Washington has learned from sources close to the deliberations.

The final result may be a presidential announcement of the new space goal in a national address at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina on December 17, 2003, the 100th anniversary of the Wright Brother's first heavier-than-air powered flight.

According to sources familiar with the White House review, the current plan-subject to change at any time the sources say-is for a final recommendation to the president by November 30th "or shortly thereafter", followed by insertion of the goal into the speech and development of timetables and supporting budgets.

Sources tell this column that last week's meetings in both the Senate and House by Vice President Dick Cheney heard no suggestions that would deflect the current discussions, which have been held by a small group of Bush administration insiders with few staff.

The White House policy meetings, which began in earnest last summer, have included but not been limited to NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and others, including DoD Technology czar Dr. Ron Sega and at least two outside individuals not connected to either the administration or the space industry.

As of late October, sources indicate that a central recommendation is likely, but not certainly to be resumption of manned lunar flights to develop advanced technologies that can support U.S. astronauts working beyond Earth orbit to not only the Moon, but eventually on near-Earth asteroids and Mars.

In an early phase of the meetings, manned Mars expeditions were considered too expensive and risky to adopt as a central goal for the civil space program. But Bush is being urged to factor in future interplanetary manned flight capabilities as part of the justification for a return to the moon. The last U.S. manned lunar mission was conducted by the Apollo 17 crew in December, 1972.

Sources indicate the policy review has been a deliberative process "not driven by any crash program mentality" but focused on how a new major manned space goal could both mobilize the U.S. space industry as well as boost morale at NASA. One person who spoke directly with Bush early in the process said the president was initially skeptical that a manned return to the Moon could be conducted for reasonable costs. Bush allegedly said then that he would not seek a massive increase of space spending.

Throughout the summer and fall, multiple groups in what was described as very small numbers have been exploring various options for new goals. Among those studied, sources say were a replacement vehicle for the space shuttle fleet, manned Moon bases and missions to Mars. An effort was also made to study how robotic missions and systems could either adjunct or replace manned flights. Strengthening of unmanned missions is also believed to be among the goals Bush is likely to order NASA to pursue.

One attendee described the current process as a 'slicing and dicing' of options into an architecture that could yield significant results within a decade without a massive increase to the NASA budget topline. An annual budget rise in the vicinity of seven to ten percent has been used as a yardstick for the planning, sources said.

If Bush does commit to a new major space policy goal, it will follow the last set of goals announced on July 20, 1989-by his father, George H.W. Bush. Other than completion of the space station, none of the goals announced then were developed into successful programs.

Copyright 2003 by Frank Sietzen, Jr. All Rights Reserved. The views expressed here are the author's own and are not to be associated with any other person or organization. Reprinted with permission exclusively on SpaceRef.com


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