WASHINGTON - Members of a commission charged with making President Bush's new vision for the space program a reality said at their first public hearing yesterday that success depends on a reasonable price tag and maintaining interest in such a long-term project.
But one of the experts called on during the meeting to discuss previous efforts to push NASA beyond low-Earth orbit, former Lockheed Martin CEO Norm Augustine, warned that money might be a sticking point. "It would be a grave mistake to undertake a major new space objective on the cheap," Augustine said. "To do so, in my opinion, would be an invitation to disaster."
Bush announced his new vision for space last month, calling for astronauts to return to the moon by 2020 and for an ambitious combination of human and robotic missions aimed at sending humans to Mars and beyond. NASA's plans call for spending $12 billion on the program during the next five years, including $1 billion in new money over that time.
Augustine, who led a 1990 panel that tackled the future of the space program - and recommended many of the same ideas now back on the table - said he has not studied President Bush's space plan closely. But when commission member Neil deGrasse Tyson asked whether $150 billion over the next 10 years is a realistic figure, Augustine said he would be concerned about undertaking such an ambitious program at NASA's current budget. "I guess if I had to bet, I'd bet that it wouldn't be enough," he said.
Thomas Stafford, a former astronaut who headed a 1991 panel that recommended going to the moon by 2005 and to Mars by 2016, said most of the same technological issues mentioned then still need to be solved, although progress has been made.
For the nine members of the commission, however, the question of how to keep such a long-term program going will be a central theme when they report to the president in four months.
A main reason why George H.W. Bush's 1989 pledge to send humans to Mars failed is because his enthusiasm did not extend to Congress or the public. Annual budget increases of 10 percent never materialized.
Generating sustained public interest in space exploration is a crucial element of making the plan work, commission chairman Edward Aldridge said.
"The continuation of support for such a program has to be from multiple presidents, multiple Congresses, multiple generations, basically," said Aldridge, a former Air Force secretary.
"How do you keep the value of space, and the contributions of space, before the American people - in fact, all of mankind - in a continuous way?" he asked. "If you can't do that, then you'll achieve what we have achieved in the past - spikes and valleys in the space budget according to the particular whims of the political leaders at the time."
The Orlando Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.