At NASA, dilemmas of transformation
A year after Columbia, the space agency faces a bold new mission - and the revival of old debates.
HOUSTON — From the outside, Building 29 looks like every other boxy 1960s structure on the Johnson Space Center campus. But inside is NASA's newest goal: Mars - or a rough reproduction of it.
The Mars Room, as it is informally known, has habitation modules, greenhouses, even a model of the planet's surface - complete with volcanic dust imported from Hawaii. And since President Bush announced a return to the moon and a manned trip to Mars earlier this month, this otherworldly room has taken on new meaning.
Experts agree that the president's plan comes, in part, as a response to the Columbia disaster, when the shuttle disintegrated over east Texas one year ago next week and shook the space community to its core.
In its report, the Columbia Accident Investigation Board concluded that a decades-long lack of strategic vision contributed to the tragedy. Now Bush has provided that vision - a bold return to manned spaceflight, first to the the moon and then, perhaps, to Mars. But the goal is hardly without controversy - within NASA as well as without. It's raising questions of cost for an agency that seems perennially short on funds. And it could revive a decades-old tension between devotees of manned spaceflight and advocates of pure science. In short, by trying to rejuvenate the agency, Bush may in fact be stirring a deeper divide over NASA's most suitable role in the 21st century.
The first question, of course, is a technical one: Can the US, even with all of its technical prowess, actually put a man on Mars? "It can be done," says Howard McCurdy, a space historian at American University in Washington. "But do the odds favor it? No." He points to old problems of mismanagement and wasteful spending as NASA's classic pitfalls.
Making Mars a reality would require turning the space agency into a powerhouse of discipline and management - the likes of which haven't been seen since the 1960s, says Dr. McCurdy.
To supporters, Bush's plan allows allows for just such a rehaul. But nearly everyone cautions that a NASA revolution will bring casualties along with triumphs.
"NASA has been directed to make space exploration its central mission, and that provides NASA management a tool to enforce discipline," says John Logsdon, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University in Washington and a member of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board. "So, yes, there will be losers as well as winners within the organization."
The most recent example of a loser: the Hubble Space Telescope, which revolutionized the study of the cosmos and forced the rewriting of astronomy texts.
Two days after Bush ordered the space agency to cut $11 billion for its five-year budget, NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe announced the winding down of the Hubble program - in favor of sending humans back to the moon, Mars, "and beyond."
Other NASA casualties include the shuttle program and the International Space Station.
Many experts agree that the space station, costing too much and providing too little science, should have been scrapped long ago. Under Bush's plan, the space station's revised research program is scheduled to end around 2016. But some point to disappointment in the space station as an ominous example of how hard it will be to complete the Mars assignment - and satisfy its vast goals.
To defenders of "pure science" and space robots - and opponents of exclusive investment in manned spaceflight - the trade-off is foolhardy.
"It's incredibly dangerous to send a human up there. And right now, we're doing a good job of seeing Mars through the eyes of a robot," says Robert Park, a physicist at the University of Maryland in College Park. "We are in a remarkable spot here in our solar system and we are going in the wrong direction in an effort to placate space enthusiasts who are still stuck back in the Buck Rogers age. History just didn't turn out that way."
While Bush's plan calls for only $1 billion in new money over five years, that's just the down payment. Some experts believe the cost of a moon base could run over $150 billion. In the meantime, there could be no manned spaceflight for a couple of years after the US grounds the shuttle and ends its involvement in the space station - possibly diminishing public interest and enthusiasm in the cosmos.
"My concern is that this is just a roundabout way of putting NASA out of business," says John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a defense and space-policy research group. "They're going to shave a little off the top of NASA's budget every few years until it slowly dwindles away, and it's been so long since an American flew in space that most people have forgotten why it's important."
Still, the future of the moon-Mars proposal is uncertain. Space experts note that Bush said nothing about it in last week's State of the Union speech, casting doubt on his seriousness. But mention of the program may also have been omitted due to its apparent lack of support. Indeed, just a week after the plan was unveiled, it's facing growing opposition from both Republicans worried about Bush's excessive spending and Democrats who want him to spend the money on other domestic programs. In addition, a Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted earlier this month found that 62 percent of Americans surveyed opposed the new space proposal.
Still, a long-term goal like Mars is essential to maintaining US prominence, says Richard Berendzen, who for years has told NASA that it lacks focus.
"Our country leads the world in medical breakthroughs, space science, and the arts and music," says the physics professor at American University. "We shouldn't simply hunker down and worry about survival. What makes a nation great is being able to think the big thoughts in the middle of a struggling economy and a war on terrorism."