WASHINGTON - President George W. Bush will propose a sweeping new vision of U.S. space leadership that will call for use of the Moon for technology development and partnerships between NASA and the Defense Department to make maximum use of existing or planned U.S. space systems, this column has learned from informed sources.
NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe will be tasked with leading the effort, aimed at presenting Vice President Dick Cheney and the president with a roadmap to what some are calling "renewed U.S. space dominance" during 2004.
Following a year-long review of U.S. space objectives, programs, and assets, the Bush administration was presented with a broad set of options during the summer's deliberations, a source indicated.
O'Keefe "worked to build a consensus" for renewed U.S. manned spaceflight beyond shuttle and station. The return to the Moon by U.S. astronauts possibly by the end of the next decade became "by default" the least expensive and risky of the paths proposed for the U.S. space program.
Bush will call for renewed U.S. activities leading to leadership of space exploration "in the Earth-Moon system" that could include manned lunar landings, the employment of a series of commercially-available launch vehicles and upper stages, new robotic lunar probes that will include orbiting communications and navigation relay satellites, and the development of a "flexible" manned spacecraft that is likely to be a form of the proposed Orbital Space Plane, but no new advanced launchers, large Apollo-style space vehicles or reusable replacements for the shuttles. Creation of a manned lunar base would evolve from more limited landings, if at all.
Development of new, advanced space technologies that would reinvigorate the space program and industry has been more of a focus of the effort than the use of the Moon itself, the source said. Military use of space and military test beds were also key elements in gaining acceptance of the renewed space plan. Testing of the Prometheus atomic rocket would also be a part of the plan.
The existing space shuttle fleet will play a crucial role in the plan by use of its heavy lifting capabilities in an unmanned form. Use of the existing U.S. expendable Delta and Atlas fleet as well as the remaining three shuttles was mandated early on, the source indicated. Part of this exercise has also been a parallel effort to arrive at a retirement date for the shuttle. That had yet to be agreed upon, this column has been told.
NASA's budget will annually rise "no more" than seven percent, beginning in 2006, according to the source. This excludes the cost of the OSP and the shuttle's return to flight. Less than $250 million in new funding will be allocated in FY2005 for the space dominance implementation plan.
A series of options studied this summer that could free up agency funding for the manned initiative included NASA ending whole areas of existing unrelated work and transferring the programs to other federal agencies. The study included ending NASA-funded aeronautics research, and earth science programs. But it was not clear if these transfers would be attempted as part of a reorganization of the space agency that was set in motion by the Columbia accident as well as the Bush space vision exercise, or delayed until after the 2004 Presidential Election. The idea was considered so controversial that many thought it would never go beyond the study phase.
O'Keefe's view of the idea was also not clear. But other elements of the reorganization are going ahead, including creation of a new "Code X" at NASA headquarters to administer the exploration package, and a streamlining of operational codes and responsibilities. Space Architect Gary Martin would be a part of but would not lead the new exploration office, whose head is expected to be a former admiral.
As this column goes to press, the source, not affiliated with the current U.S. space industry or agencies, indicated that eventual success in reaching a broad enough goal to gain political support within the administration was mostly the work of O'Keefe, and a small group of other Bush administration appointees and advisors. "Some were dubious that he (O'Keefe) could be a statesman, but look what has happened," the source said.
"For someone without a space background, he did good, keeping people's feet to the fire. He clearly wants (the new vision) this to happen." "But they are still tinkering with what's in there, and nobody knows at all." There was-and still is-significant opposition to the effort, the source said.
In the end, however, O'Keefe allegedly spent as much time gathering support within NASA itself as he did within the U.S. military, which continues to be skeptical about a new NASA-led manned program. "In a way he had to drag his own agency along to put up, or shut it. It was a close run thing, and still isn't a done deal" this column was told.
Once the Bush White House chooses a venue for the announcement, attention will shift to NASA for the crafting of the implementation plan and the chronology. Some of this has already been assembled, allegedly and quietly, by O'Keefe working with a handful of NASA planners. Other elements will depend on how much of the final proposed vision actually gets into form by the White House.
Support for any NASA-run manned space program was not uniform within the administration, the source complained. "But in the end he got most of them on board, and that's what counts." But when asked if the new space vision announcement is a certainty, the source joked. "In this White House, the only thing certain is they hate leaks."