BOSTON — PRESIDENT Bush has called on the United States to plant its flag on Mars before 2019 when it celebrates the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing. But it is uncertain that the country is ready to rise to his challenge, according to the congressional Office of technology Assessment (OTA). The OTA underscored that uncertainty in a report released at a Washington press conference May 11, the same day the president urged a Kingsville, Texas, audience to ``open up the final frontier.''
Entitled Access to Space: The Future of US Space Transportation, the study lays out a range of options for taking space pioneers into earth orbit and beyond. However, it warns Congress that ``because the lack of a clear future course for US space activities makes the scale and character of future demand for space transportation highly uncertain, it is not sensible to choose among space transportation options without first selecting the specific goals to be served.''
It is widely acknowledged in Congress and within the administration that the Bush program for a moon base and Mars exploration could supply overarching goals that would give direction to the US space effort. The president sharpened that plan May 11 by giving a specific timetable - finish the space station by 2000, set up the moon base by 2010, and be on Mars by 2019.
Congress, however, has yet to approve any part of such a program, which would likely cost $400 billion to $500 billion over the next 30 years. Moreover, many senators and representatives do not have a clear sense of how strongly the nation will support such an extended effort. Therefore, OTA says it urges Congress to encourage a national dialogue to set firm space goals because agreement on those goals is the overriding immediate need.
Other high-priority general needs that the report cites are reduction of launch costs and improved launch reliability. The OTA chides the administration for naively discounting launch risks. It observes: ``Success rates for US launch systems, including the shuttle, range between 85 and 97 percent, yet US plans ... are optimistic and make little allowance for launch failures. ... The shuttle fleet has never met projected flight rates and the existing fleet is unlikely to meet NASA's goal of 14 flights per year in the 1990s. ...''
The OTA explores a number of options Congress might consider in providing better access to space. Ranging from cautious to bold, they include such choices as additional shuttle orbiters, improved expendable rockets, an enhanced safety and reliability program for the shuttle, limiting shuttle missions to eight to 10 a year, and a space-station rescue vehicle.
The OTA adds that international cooperation is a way to gain better space access while holding down costs to the United States. However, it warns that, to attract foreign partners, ``the United States will have to demonstrate that it not only has the willingness to cooperate but the institutional mechanisms to follow through.'' It notes that the unilateral delays and redesigns of the space station, in which Canada, Europe, and Japan are partners, ``may diminish [foreign] interest in pursuing cooperative projects with the United States.''
The OTA emphasizes that Congress cannot put off decisions on space transportation indefinitely. Development of advanced rockets and improved manned vehicles has to start at least a decade before they are needed. But whatever is done, the report concludes, all decisions ``will depend directly on the nation's vision for its future in space.''