Bush next Wednesday is expected to announce he wants to send American astronauts back the moon early in the next decade in preparation for sending crews to explore Mars and nearby asteroids. The sweeping new effort, which represents the biggest overhaul of the U.S. space program in its history, also would involve retiring the space shuttle fleet and gradually withdrawing participation in the International Space Station.
Although the plans still are only in the concept stage and have yet to be fully developed, the White House insisted advanced robotic devices be emphasized in the new space effort to supplement human space missions, sources said.
"This should end the tired old argument between manned and unmanned space flight," a source predicted.
Advancing space robotic technology will require much of the initial $800 million the president is expected to request for fiscal year 2005 as a down payment on his space plan -- it could be as much as $300 million to $500 million of the increase, sources said.
The new robots would be capable not only of exploring the moon in tandem with the visiting astronauts, but also of functioning independently from humans if necessary. Among the robotic systems under consideration would be automated facilities on the moon's surface to perform such activities as facilities construction and operation, power production and analysis of the lunar soil and minerals. The robots also would work in tandem with orbiting probes to map the moon's surface and identify its features in high detail to provide navigational aids for future landings.
Early versions of planning documents, which were shown to UPI, reveal the first missions to the moon under the new Bush initiative -- tentatively scheduled for 2013 -- would use robotic probes and orbiting spacecraft.
The orbiters could be derivatives of the current fleet of reconnaissance satellites now used around Mars. The surface vehicles could be advanced versions of the Mars Exploration Rovers, such as Spirit, which landed successfully on the Martian surface on Jan. 3, and Opportunity, which is due to land Jan. 24.
NASA already has an advanced robotic lander well into the planning stage. The Mars Science Laboratory, which is due to rendezvous with the planet in 2009, is a nuclear-powered, Volkswagon-Beetle-sized craft. It roam the Martian surface for a year or more, operating both day and night.
Sources also said private enterprise could play an important role in designing and building the moon craft involved in the early stages of the lunar exploration program. One idea, still in its infancy, would be to create an automated pilot plant on the moon to provide power and other resources for a human lunar outpost.
Another concept under consideration would be to build a new generation of lunar rovers, such as those used on three Apollo missions in 1971 and 1972. The new craft would be more like moon-traveling RVs, however, carrying living quarters for astronauts as well as instruments for research.
The robotic systems at first would assist human crews during missions and then continue exploration and other duties when the astronauts returned to Earth.
Sources stressed that under the new space plan NASA would have to abandon its current approach of maintaining separate programs for manned and unmanned missions. Both efforts would have to be combined, using the advantages and best features of each to explore the moon, Mars, and other parts of the solar system, which is the goal at the heart of the new Bush space doctrine.
Frank Sietzen Jr. covers aerospace issues for UPI Science News. Keith L. Cowing is editor of NASAWatch.com and SpaceRef.com. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org