WASHINGTON, Jan. 12 (UPI) -- President George W. Bush will ask for international participation in his plan to resume missions to the moon and to send human crews to Mars within the next 20 years, a senior administration source told United Press International.
The decision means foreign launch vehicles or spacecraft components likely would play an important role in the space effort.
As UPI has reported, Bush is expected to announce Wednesday sweeping changes in U.S. space policy, including retiring the space shuttle fleet and gradually withdrawing from participation in the International Space Station. The president is scheduled to deliver the speech at 3 p.m. EST at NASA headquarters in Washington.
Although the thrust of the Bush space initiative will be within the context of domestic policy, sources said the president prefers the United States avoid undertaking such ambitious exploration journeys alone, if at all possible, and that the new plan not rule out international participation.
As of last Friday, however, aerospace industry sources told UPI none of the major U.S. partners in the International Space Station -- including the European Space Agency, Japan and Canada -- had been contacted to arrange a briefing before the president speaks on Wednesday.
Inviting such participation comprises a complex issue, however, whose full impact on the new space policy probably will not become apparent until later this year, sources said, when the overall architecture of Bush's new space policy begins to emerge.
International cooperation in space has created problems for the U.S. government in the past, particularly involving Russia. In the mid-1990s, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration was required to pay the Russian space program several hundred million dollars a year under the auspices of space station construction.
Russia's participation, initially justified as a way to help defray the cost of the project, ended up adding years to the station's schedule and costing additional billions.
The biggest problem with Russia's participation was NASA had placed it in the so-called critical path of space station development, sources said. The Russian space program often could not perform as promised, resulting in station construction delays.
U.S. dependence on Russian rockets has continued in the wake of the shuttle Columbia accident on Feb. 1, 2003. With the U.S. shuttle fleet grounded, NASA has been forced to rely on Soyuz spacecraft to carry humans to and from the space station.
Bush's new plan figures to continue that dependence, sources said. It calls for NASA to retire the shuttle fleet after the space station is completed. Although NASA is supposed to develop a new type of spacecraft -- called the crew exploration vehicle -- the process will require nearly a decade, during which the agency again will become reliant on Russian vehicles for station access.
This part of the plan is expected to draw the most criticism from Congress when legislators begin to examine its details. Though it might be possible to ease some of the Russian space program's problems by providing financial aid, the U.S. government is prohibited from doing so. Russia is technically in violation of the Iran Non-Proliferation Act of 2000. The U.S. government cannot purchase Russian goods or services until Russia changes its policy toward Iran to comply with nuclear non-proliferation requirements.
The situation could require NASA to rely on the other countries participating in the station program to provide funding to Russia for Soyuz flights so Americans can continue to live and work aboard the station.
In fact, the U.S. government has been undertaking this indirect strategy for some time. Sean O'Keefe, NASA's administrator, has stated "not 1 cent has yet to be transferred to Russia" for space services. He said Russia and the other nations participating in the space station have "stepped up admirably and behaved like partners" to help the United States adapt to the grounding of the shuttle fleet.
Frank Sietzen Jr. covers aerospace issues for UPI Science News. Keith L. Cowing is editor of NASAWatch.com and SpaceRef.com. E-mail [email protected]