WASHINGTON – If the president wants Congress to pass his ambitious new space plan,he will need to answer some tough questions – like how much it will cost,and can Americans afford such a project in the face of an astronomical deficit.
In the first formal discussion of President Bush's plan,the House Committee on Science posed a series of questions Thursday to NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe and the president's director of science and technology policy.
“There are still a lot of unanswered questions,” said Rep. Mark Udall,D-Colo.,a committee member. “There are outstanding questions about cost,focus and existing programs.”
Udall expressed concern over the decision to terminate the Hubble space telescope program,which has been sending back photos and other data about the cosmos since 1990. Preserving the aging telescope will require that astronauts visit it to make repairs.
“If we are afraid to fly to the Hubble,what are we doing talking about going to the moon and then Mars?” Udall asked.
The president's space exploration initiative,which he proposed in January,includes three major goals: completing the International Space Station by the end of the decade,placing humans on the moon by 2020 and,ultimately,landing humans on Mars to increase the commercialization of space.
Bush proposed raising NASA's budget by 5.6 percent to $16.2 billion for fiscal 2005 and spending a cumulative $87.1 billion on the entire NASA budget between 2005 and 2009.
“I have to say that this is hardly the ideal year for this proposal to have come forward – although perhaps there never would be an ideal year,” said Rep. Sherwood Boehlert,R-N.Y.,the committee chair. “The advance of human space flight is an engaging dream,but I want to know how we're going to feel when we wake up.”
Unfortunately,the science of future technology is not something that can be answered clearly.
The president's plan is “a long-term objective. This is not a program in which there can be discreet elements. … It is something over a longer period of time,which you can assess,must assess,progress as you approach it,” said O'Keefe.
NASA will be focusing on the completion of the space station in the next six years so it can gain a better understanding of the long-term effects of space on the human body. The current space shuttle program would be in place long enough to complete the space station.
NASA will also be working toward building a crew exploration vehicle,named Project Constellation,which would replace the shuttle as a means of transportation to the moon and beyond.
O'Keefe was unable to answer how much the program would cost by 2016.
“We will be transferring our work on the (Orbital Space Plan) to the CEV,” said Evan McCollum,director of communication for Lockheed Martin Space System Co. in Colorado. “I know that NASA has a difficult decision to make regarding programs and funding.”
Colorado is a leader in the nation's space industry. It is home to the third-largest space economy,behind California and Florida,providing an estimated $4 billion to $5 billion a year in revenue,according to the Colorado Office of Economic Development.
Lockheed Martin,which helped build the Hubble telescope,is one of the state's space technology industry leaders.
“The Hubble telescope has provided and continues to provide science innovation,” McCollum said. “Its mission will,someday,come to an end.”
The Columbia Accident Investigation Board suggested that a trip to service the Hubble could pose a safety threat to astronauts if an emergency arose. The current space shuttle would not be able to reach the space station,where help would be available.
Without a servicing mission,Hubble is expected to stop working around 2007.