WASHINGTON, Dec. 4 (UPI) -- Since last spring, the Bush administration has been conducting a confidential effort to establish a dramatic new goal for the nation's civil space program, perhaps rivaling President John F. Kennedy's call to place a U.S. astronaut on the moon before the end of the 1960s, sources told United Press International.
Only a few administration insiders have been involved, with Vice President Dick Cheney heading the effort, said sources, who requested anonymity.
Though some details have leaked out -- most notably reports Wednesday and Thursday that President George W. Bush will call for returning Americans to the moon -- sources insist no final decisions have been made. Instead, the president is reviewing a list of alternative goals -- some of them more practical than dramatic -- that must conform to a pair of overriding directives: Any option must be achievable within a reasonable period of time, and it must not require any major new federal spending.
Bush's decision and announcement, sources told UPI, could come as early as Dec. 17, when the president is scheduled to speak at Kitty Hawk, N.C., at a ceremony marking the 100th anniversary of the Wright brothers' first powered flight. The matter also could be deferred until January 2004 and included in his State of the Union address to Congress.
The White House Office of Management and Budget has completed a cost review of the proposed alternatives. Reportedly, the alternatives validate the idea a new U.S. space initiative could be attempted with existing or proposed technology and hardware and could avoid the budget build-ups of previous projects, such as the space shuttle or the International Space Station -- although such a policy change would require NASA to make tough choices regarding cuts in existing programs.
Sources said the White House space policy review is not connected to the ongoing investigation of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, which was made necessary by the space shuttle disaster. On Feb. 1, shuttle Columbia broke up over several southwestern states during its reentry into the atmosphere, provoking a massive re-examination of the agency's manned space program.
Instead, the effort seems to have grown from a more fundamental motivation to reform and revitalize NASA -- something Cheney has been championing almost from the first day he and Bush took office in January 2001.
Bush ordered the policy review in late May. Since then, it has proceeded slowly and carefully, sources said, perhaps more so than any previous examination of the space program. Its progress was managed at a series of meetings involving only a few participants, headed by Cheney and including NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe.
The recommendations were developed confidentially by O'Keefe and his staff and the cost of each recommendation was analyzed by OMB and evaluated according to Bush's twin directives. Cheney -- who has gathered other input from members of both houses of Congress with an interest in the space program -- will make the final recommendation to the president.
On July 20, 1989, on the 20th anniversary of the first Apollo moon landing by astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, President George H.W. Bush proposed a return to the moon and an attempt to go to Mars. Neither of those proposals so far has borne fruit.
If Bush accepts the new recommendation for a major space objective and makes such a commitment -- and if the effort moves forward -- it would represent the first time in nearly two decades a U.S. president has proposed a new vision for the space program that yielded results. The last time such a proposal succeeded was when President Ronald Reagan announced a plan to built permanent space station in his January 1984 State of the Union speech.
Phil Berardelli is UPI's Science & Technology Editor. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org