WASHINGTON, Feb. 12 (UPI) -- The House Science Committee Thursday questioned the cost of President Bush's sweeping new space program and heard testimony from NASA officials defending a decision to cancel a repair mission to the Hubble Space Telescope.
"Right now we have far more questions (about the program) than answers," said committee chairman Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y. "I remain open minded about this proposal. The president and his advisers should be congratulated for doing something no one has done for 40 years -- laying out a space policy with a seemingly reasonable price tag."
There was criticism of NASA for not providing a concrete budget beyond fiscal 2009 for the proposed space projects, given the United States is running a deficit.
Bush outlined his space program Jan. 14. It includes phasing out the space shuttle program, retiring the Hubble Space Telescope, ending U.S. involvement in the International Space Station and sending a human to the moon and later Mars.
Sean O'Keefe, National Aeronautics and Space Administration administrator, said Bush has delivered a promising plan, which the president had termed "a journey, not a race."
"It's achievable, it's ambitious, it's focused, it's affordable," O'Keefe said.
Bush's fiscal 2005 budget recommends $16 billion for NASA, an increase of 5.6 percent from 2004. Lunar exploration is the fastest growing item by percent, up 500 percent from 2005 funding to a projected fiscal 2009 amount of $420 million.
The increase in the travel budget to the moon and Mars is cushioned in part by the phase-out of the space shuttle program and proposed cuts to physical sciences research through fiscal 2009.
Boehlert sought assurances there would be opportunities to assess the programs along the way and asked for an overall cost of the Bush initiative.
O'Keefe said a budget for the whole project had not been determined but current projections for shorter-term programs, including the return of flight program and completion of the International Space Station involvement, would total $6.6 billion. Congress would have a chance to evaluate each step of the program, O'Keefe told Boehlert.
"At each successive phase there will be a price tag connected to it," he said.
O'Keefe said funding for the proposed projects will be determined using what he called a "spiral development technique," in which each project builds upon the successful outcomes of the previous missions.
Faced with heated questioning by ranking Democrat, Rep. Bart Gordon of Tennessee, O'Keefe conceded it was possible the president might never have specifically asked the actual cost of putting a human on the moon.
"Did the president ever ask what this was going to cost, yes or no?" Gordon asked O'Keefe.
"We showed him this chart," O'Keefe responded and referred to a graph projection of estimated costs of the programs in future years.
O'Keefe said it was impractical to project a concrete budget for a project that looked ahead 20 years and built upon itself.
John Marburger, director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, testified that despite the accomplishments of the Hubble telescope, the cancellation of a space shuttle mission to extend its life past 2007 was justified.
NASA said the mission was canceled on grounds of astronaut safety, in accordance with new space shuttle regulations that require astronauts to have access to a "safe haven" on all missions.
"Hubble's uniqueness is diminishing," Marburger said. "There are alternative ways of getting some of the same scientific data."
Much of Hubble's work can now be done from the ground using technology such as adaptive optics and infrared sensors, he said.
Rep. Mark Udall, D-Colo., said adaptive optics would not provide an adequate alternative to the Hubble telescope until 2015.
Marburger, however, noted in written testimony that he supports continued development of the Webb Space Telescope, Hubble's planned replacement.
O'Keefe also told the committee the space shuttle program, grounded after the 2003 Columbia accident, probably would not resume on schedule. The president had planned to return the shuttles to flight by September, but O'Keefe said establishing an improved inspection plan and reducing tile loss from external tanks would delay the launch.
"I do not believe the September-October deadline will be met," he said.
Keith L. Cowing, who covers NASA for UPI, contributed to this report.