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NASA rushes plan to send humans to moon, Mars, despite doubts among scientists, Congress

WASHINGTON—NASA is racing to carry out President Bush's costly vision of sending humans back to the moon and then on to Mars—despite the federal budget squeeze and doubts in Congress and the scientific community about the plan's wisdom.

Even some of the project's allies are balking at its price tag and headlong pace.

NASA is "trying to do too much at once," said Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y., chairman of the House Science Committee, a strong supporter of the space agency. He protested that NASA is "barreling ahead" even though Congress "has never endorsed—in fact, never even discussed—the vision."

"I think NASA is headed for a potential train wreck," warned Rep. Bart Gordon, D-Tenn., the committee's senior Democrat, who worried that the Moon-Mars plan is gobbling up funds for other scientific ventures.

Even some space agency officials are expressing concern. The cost and complexities of the Moon-Mars project make this "a time for sobering up," Michael Meyer, NASA's lead scientist for Mars exploration, told a committee of the National Academy of Sciences earlier this month.

It's been a little over a year since Bush announced "The President's Vision for U.S. Space Exploration," but the space agency has already awarded 118 preliminary contracts for the project. It's requesting fresh ideas from industry and universities in order to launch a large new spaceship, called the Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV), three years from now.

The $15 billion CEV is supposed to take over from today's aging fleet of space shuttles and carry astronauts "to the moon, Mars and beyond," as NASA officials like to say.

By this summer, two aerospace teams will be chosen to construct competing prototypes of the CEV. A final version will by chosen by the end of 2006, and the first unmanned flight is scheduled for 2008.

"To meet the president's timeline, we need to start technology development now," said Craig Steidle, a retired admiral who heads the agency's Exploration Systems Directorate. "There is urgency in the president's agenda."

The administration has asked Congress for $3.2 billion for the second year of the Moon-Mars project. That's a 23 percent increase from its first-year kitty of $2.6 billion. Bush wants total NASA spending to grow just 2 percent to $16.5 billion for the 2006 fiscal year, so other NASA programs are getting cut.

The project enjoys a White House promise of increasing funds, totaling $20.3 billion over the next five years (through fiscal year 2010). Outlays surge thereafter, and NASA estimates that it will spend $100 billion on the project through 2020.

"This is an absolute priority on the part of the president," White House Budget Director Joshua Bolten told congressional budgeteers last year. The project also enjoys the powerful support of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, whose Houston district houses NASA's Johnson Space Flight Center.

Meanwhile, scientists worry about the impact of the huge enterprise on other endeavors, such as astronomy, physics and climate change.

The exploration project has already doomed plans to prolong the life of the successful Hubble Space Telescope. A mission to detect Earth-like planets around other stars has been postponed for two years, until 2012.

Some space science missions have been delayed indefinitely, such as one to explore Jupiter's moon, Europa, which might support life beneath its icy surface, and another to study the mysterious "dark energy," a sort of anti-gravity, which is forcing the universe to expand.

The National Academy of Sciences has called dark energy the most important question in physics and astronomy today. The Europa mission was the top priority of the astronomical community's 10-year plan adopted in 2001.

A panel of academy experts, headed by Yale University astronomer Megan Urry, sent a letter to NASA, dated Feb. 14, stating that "the long-term impact (of the Moon-Mars project) on astronomy and astrophysics is not entirely clear, but short-term changes are already having an effect, and there are community concerns that serious problems lie ahead."

In an analysis of Bush's science budget, the American Association for the Advancement of Science said the president's vision will "require steep cuts in aeronautics and earth science funding and the cancellation of a proposed Hubble servicing mission to pay for NASA's ambitious space exploration plans."

"The goal of sending humans to Mars needs more definition," Meyer, NASA's Mars scientist, told the National Academy committee. "What are humans going to do on Mars? We have to protect Mars. Do we want to send astronauts with all their dead skin cells and bacteria? We don't want to contaminate the planet and replace possible extant life."


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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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