WASHINGTON, April 28 (UPI) -- More than a dozen weeks after President George W. Bush announced his ambitious new plan for sending astronauts back to the moon and beyond, interest by the public and politicians has failed to ignite.
Instead of the technical challenges to manned flights to the moon or Mars, the focus has been mainly on the project's possible cost, and on the question of whether NASA is up to the job.
In the aftermath of Bush's speech at NASA headquarters in Washington on Jan. 14, public opinion polls have indicated strong support for the near-term elements of the space plan, such as returning the space shuttle fleet safely to flight and completing the International Space Station. But advancing the idea of returning U.S. astronauts to the ancient dust of the moon in the next decade, or to the red planet Mars, has not exactly ignited rockets of enthusiasm. Yet both the White House and NASA remain optimistic that both public and political support will grow as the proposals receive more exposure and are explained more fully.
As announced by Bush, the new course of the nation's civil space program is an extended exploration agenda. Called a new vision and mission for NASA, the plan consists of five elements.
-- First is fixing the technical and managerial issues that led to the shuttle Columbia disaster on Feb. 1, 2003, and restoring the fleet of winged spaceships to safe service.
-- Second, once the shuttles are flying again, their primary if not sole task will be to assemble the remaining elements of the space station into a final, completed orbiting base. Hundreds of tons of cargo and equipment bound for the station remain stored in hangars at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, awaiting their shuttle ride into space. The units were built only for launch aboard -- and assembly by -- the shuttle fleet. Following the completion of the station, around 2010, the shuttles are scheduled to be retired.
-- Third, Bush wants to pump new life into robotics technology, designing an advanced race of probes that could accompany astronauts on their space journeys but also fly on their own to the same or other, more hazardous destinations in space.
-- Fourth, Bush has called for a new generation of advanced manned spaceships, called crew exploration vehicles. These craft could shuttle crews back and forth to the station after the shuttle is retired, but their main use would be to return American astronauts to the lunar surface to establish a permanent outpost there.
-- Fifth, following the moon voyages -- intended mainly to test and develop new space equipment and technologies -- Bush wants to send astronauts to Mars, and possibly beyond, in an advanced human space exploration agenda.
No sooner had the president announced all these initiatives at NASA headquarters did his proposal begin to run into resistance and criticisms.
Although NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe and the White House had spent months laying the groundwork for the new space initiative, there seems to have been a lack of a rollout strategy once the administration went public.
Several congressional staffers, some briefed the day before Bush spoke and others shortly thereafter, openly scoffed at the plan to pay for the initiative. That plan called for a small boost to NASA's budget over the next three years, after which the agency would be allotted little new annual money.
Instead, the initiative calls for a fundamental restructuring of the space agency that would free up some $11 billion from existing programs to be diverted to the space initiative. Such restructuring would fund the early years of the U.S. return to the moon, new robotics technologies and the new crew spaceships. But other, larger rockets to haul cargoes into orbit for the project -- as well as the manned Mars part of the program -- would be funded in as- yet-undetermined future outlays.
The uncertainty quickly surfaced as the space plan made its early rounds on Capitol Hill. No one in the administration could explain, for example, what the manned Mars flights would cost. O'Keefe's position was reasonable on its face, because major details, such as how the Mars ships would be designed and what mission plans they would follow -- and when -- were nowhere near being determined.
"They thought that we would just stand up and salute," one congressional staffer lamented. Few Republicans, other than Majority Leader Tom Delay, R-Texas, vigorously supported the plan. Others expressed skepticism, and some quietly balked at the idea of a multi-billion boost in NASA's budget during a time of rising federal budget deficits and an increasingly expensive war in Iraq. Some remarked that NASA needed first to solve its space shuttle woes before accepting a huge new task from the president.
Polls have shown that large majorities of Americans -- ranging from 58 percent to 65 percent -- oppose any big new spending for manned trips to either the moon or Mars. Those same polls indicate the shuttles and station fare better with the public than the farther destinations. Why? Because many news stories in the immediate aftermath of Bush's announcement suggested the cost would reach trillions of dollars, and repeated statements by NASA that the figures were highly exaggerated did not reverse the early views.
Recent congressional hearings have examined many aspects of the space initiative, and leaders in both parties have lamented the lack of answers to some of the technical questions, such as specifics of the CEV designs, mission modes, and ultimate costs of going to Mars.
In a rare showing of bipartisanship, Reps. Sherwood Boehlert, R. N.Y., and Sens. Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md., and Christopher S. Bond, R-Mo., have told O'Keefe during hearings they retain sufficient doubt about key components of the Bush plan that Congress might delay action until next year -- or maybe approve only a small, initial amount of the requested fund.
The doubts have not been confined to Capitol Hill.
"Oh, you mean the plan to shut down the human spaceflight program?" suggested John Pike, director of the Global Security Web site and a long time space analyst. Pike viewed the shuttle retirement idea and eventual U.S. departure from the space station around 2016 as a Bush administration ruse to abandon -- not advance -- space flight.
"It replaces something with nothing," Pike told United Press International. "The issues are not technical, but rather budget and policy."
As far as why the public has not embraced the space initiative, there is a variety of views. Katherine Pandora, a professor at the University of Oklahoma, asked her class on the history of science for their ideas on why the plan was, in her words, "going nowhere."
"The overwhelming majority (of the students) wrote that since the Iraq war was so expensive, and there is no end in sight, it makes it difficult to think that Americans can write an unlimited number of checks for any initiative that comes around the corner," Pandora told UPI. "They also indicated that the grimness of the war also makes 'adventures' like going to space seem somewhat frivolous at this time," she added.
Pandora suggested, however, that even without the war, the project still might lack support. She noted that many scientists have expressed little interest in the research potential of the shuttles or the space station. Thus, their lack of enthusiasm for another huge manned space effort seems a logical extension. She also commented the Challenger and Columbia accidents have caused the public to have a "sense of unease" about NASA's abilities to manage space projects.
Still, the outlook is not entirely bleak.
"I think there is less real opposition on Capitol Hill than was first perceived," said Brian Chase, vice president for Washington Operations of the Space Foundation in Colorado Springs, Colo.
Chase said the erroneously inflated cost estimates are one reason for the cool start for the plan. "The cost myth has been largely dispelled and there is a better understanding of the vision and how it will be paid for," he told UPI. "I've also seen additional polls that show much stronger support for the new vision than those released right after the speech."
The bottom line, Chase said, is when people begin to consider the space plan an investment in the country's future and see it conducted in a fiscally sound way, support would grow.
Frank Sietzen covers aerospace for UPI Science News. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org