CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- The message in President Bush's space policy speech Thursday that most pleased NASA was not about going to Mars -- it was about protecting the agency's embattled space station program from crippling budget cuts.
As expected, the president marked the 20th anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landing mission by calling for a return to the moon and eventual flights to Mars sometime in the 21st century.
But he did not set a timetable, except in very broad strokes, for future manned space exploration beyond Earth orbit. Instead, he asked Vice President Dan Quayle, chairman of the National Space Council, to study the matter and to figure out how much it might cost.
In short, he did not challenge the nation the way President John F. Kennedy did in 1961 when he committed the United States 'to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth.'
Instead, Bush said the nation's immediate space goal 'for the coming decade, for the 1990s,' is the construction and operation of space station Freedom, a project endorsed by President Reagan in 1984 and one that has been under the budget ax ever since.
Bush's speech Thursday amounted to the strongest presidential show of support for the beleaguered project since 1984 and one that clearly pleased new NASA Administrator Richard Truly, the former shuttle pilot who helped guide the agency's recovery from the Challenger disaster.
'I thought it was clear that he made a call, a very direct call, to the Congress about space station Freedom,' Truly said.
Shortly after Bush announced his proposal, the House began debating NASA's 1990 appropriation bill, totaling $12.3 billion -- $1 billion less than the administration requested.
The space station could cost more than $30 billion when administrative and logistics costs are included, and NASA originally asked for $2 billion in fiscal 1990 to begin 'cutting hardware.'
But the House Appropriations Committee recommended $1.7 billion, $395 million less than requested by NASA and a shortfall that would further delay the station's construction, already running years behind schedule.
Many critics believe the space station is in dire jeopardy anyway and that NASA ultimately could be forced to scale back the design and settle for a more modest outpost.
Given the difficulty NASA is having building an Earth-orbiting space station, it is difficult to imagine the agency winning public, and thus political, support for both that project and a new long-range initiative to build bases on the moon and Mars.
After all, to get to Mars early in the 21st century, work must begin in the near future. Bush put the problem squarely on the shoulders of Congress.
'The pathway to the stars begins where it did 20 years ago with you, the American people, and it continues just up the street there to the United States Congress, where the future of the space station and our future as a space-faring nation will be decided.'
Truly said there has been no discussion of timetables beyond having the space station operational in the 1990s and establishing a long-term presence on the moon the following decade.
He also acknowledged estimates that an Apollo-style program to establish a lunar base, as opposed to the long-term approach proposed by Bush, could cost $100 billion over 10 years.
At a time when NASA is 'fighting hard' to secure enough funding for the space station, he said, 'I don't know what the budgets will be, but I can assure you that they are affordable, I believe, in the total context and over a long period of time.'
Michael Collins, who remained in lunar orbit while Apollo 11 crewmates Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin explored the moon's surface for the first time, said in May that setting an Apollo-class national space goal simply could not happen today.
'President Bush,' Collins said, 'would have to say, 'I think we ought to dedicate ourselves to the goal of perhaps considering appointing a commission, after due deliberation with the Congress, of investigating the feasibility of certain long-range goals for the space program, perhaps even including a mission to Mars.''
That appears to be just exactly what he did.