WASHINGTON, Jan. 14 (UPI) -- President George W. Bush called for a national goal Wednesday of returning U.S. astronauts to the moon in preparation for establishing a permanent human presence elsewhere in the solar system.
"Human beings are headed into the cosmos," Bush said at a speech at NASA headquarters in Washington, which proposed flights to the moon by 2014 and extended missions by 2015.
The president's announcement, which was reported in detail by United Press International on Jan. 8, also called for retiring the space shuttle fleet as soon as the U.S. commitment to the build International Space Station is fulfilled and building a new generation of spacecraft capable of transporting astronauts to the moon and beyond.
Speaking before a crowd of current and former astronauts, leaders from the Senate and House of Representatives and a large number of NASA employees, Bush noted the presence of Eugene Cernan, an Apollo 17 astronaut and "the last man to set foot on the lunar surface."
"He said this as he left: 'We leave as we came and, God willing, as we shall return, with peace, and hope for all mankind,' the president said, adding, "America will make those words come true."
Although Bush made the moon the immediate focus of his plan, he also cast his sights much farther. Under the new space plan, human flights to Mars would follow the moon landings, although Bush did not indicate a timetable for them. Moreover, the immediate priority for the space program would be returning the space shuttles to safe flight as soon as possible. He said the main task for the shuttle fleet would be to complete the U.S. portion of the International Space Station, which would be completed by 2010.
"We will finish what we have started," Bush said of the station project. At that point, the shuttle fleet would be retired. "Then it would be time for America to take the next step," he said.
That step -- new human missions to the moon, would be preceded by robotic exploration of the lunar surface beginning in 2008. Bush called the robots "trailblazers" for the astronauts who would follow them.
In order to take humans to the space station and then to the moon and beyond, NASA would develop its first new manned spacecraft in three decades. The new craft, called the crew exploration vehicle or CEV, would replace the shuttle and serve multi-mission capabilities.
Bush said the first orbital test flights of the CEV would begin as early as 2008.
The president's speech outlined the new plan in broad terms, leaving many unknowns before humans can venture forth on long-duration missions in space. As reported previously by UPI, NASA would shift the research aboard the space station from its current wide range of topics to an effort focused on sustaining humans in space.
The aspect of the plan that seems to have generated the most anticipation is its cost. Some critics and commentaries already have blasted the idea for its anticipated high cost at a time of large federal budget deficits. But Bush said NASA's annual budget would need to rise only about $1 billion, spread over the next five years, to pay for the initial missions. NASA may have to request additional funding from Congress as the plan progresses, but for now the president placed funding limits on the initiative.
One potential money-saving aspect is participation of other space programs in the effort. "I call on other nations to join us on this journey, in the spirit of cooperation and friendship," he said.
Harking back to the last great exploration effort, the Apollo program of the late 1960s and early 1970s, Bush said: "The vision I outline today is a journey, not a race."
Bush named retired Air Force secretary Pete Aldridge to chair a committee of government and private-sector experts to review NASA's plans to implement this new policy. Their report will be due on the President's desk four months after the committee first meets.
In closing his speech, Bush recalled the words of a member of one of the families of the shuttle Columbia's crew. "The legacy of Columbia must carry on for the benefit of our children and yours," Bush said, adding, "Columbia's crew did not turn away from the challenge, and neither will we."
The president's speech was preceded by opening remarks by NASA astronaut Mike Foale, who spoke via live satellite link from the International Space Station.
Frank Sietzen Jr. covers aerospace for UPI Science News. Keith L. Cowing is editor of nasawatch.com. E-mail email@example.com