Since the dawn of the space age a half-century ago, each generation has witnessed tragedy in the US spaceflight program. Each tragedy has prompted calls for reform in NASA and a renewed sense of direction for America's space program.
Now a presidential commission is recommending the largest overhaul in the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's history in the wake of the Columbia tragedy 18 months ago. The aim is to retool the agency to meet President Bush's goal of returning humans to the moon as early as 2015 as a steppingstone to exploration of Mars and other destinations in the solar system.
Yet even as analysts applaud the ambition of the effort, they note that reorganizing government agencies is just one piece that has to be assembled to move human exploration beyond Earth's orbit. From the nuts-and-bolts of cheaper, more reliable rockets to the intangible of sustained congressional support, other obstacles will have to be overcome if the vision Mr. Bush outlined in January is to succeed. This is to say nothing of whether Americans themselves want to spend the money to journey deeper into the cosmos at a time of war and a still-mending economy.
"NASA needs a focused mission and the president gave it a focused mission," says Roger Launius, a space historian now at the Smithsonian Institution's Air and Space Museum in Washington. "The challenge is that, as a people, Americans haven't really resolved the question of whether or not we want to do this. Support for the space program is very broad, but it's not very deep."
Among the commission's proposals, a leaner NASA would focus on cutting-edge R&D. It recommends:
• Contracting a broader range of activities to the private sector, including unmanned launches to low-Earth orbit.
• Operating its research facilities more along the lines of national laboratories rather than as internal fiefdoms with overlapping duties and constant turf battles.
• Reestablishing a White House level council that would coordinate efforts among agencies and provide what the panel calls a "useful prod for NASA to keep its house in order."
• Urging Congress to award significant amounts of money to people or companies that developed major "enabling" technologies or reach new milestones in civilian spaceflight.
This notion was inspired in part by the X Prize, a $10 million purse for the first nongovernmental group that builds a rocket that can safely carry humans into space and back twice in a two-week period. Noted US aircraft designer Burt Rutan is slated to send his entry into space on a test flight on Monday.
Indeed, developing cheaper, more reliable, and safer rockets to launch humans into low-Earth orbit is at the top of the list of technologies needed, notes Howard McCurdy, professor of public administration at American University in Washington.
The president's policy and the commission's report recognize that need. But it's growing more urgent by the day, notes Lou Friedman, executive director of the Planetary Society, a space-exploration advocacy group based in Pasadena, Calif.
The president's policy is clear about the need to replace the shuttle, he says. But in the five months since Bush unveiled his plan, Dr. Friedman continues, the shuttle's return-to-flight date has slipped by a year. If an accident or technical problem hits another shuttle, this could further delay completion of the International Space Station and thus the president's timetable.
"If the whole program is just delayed it will never happen," he says, because the the president's timetables for retiring the shuttle and finishing the space station are critical to realizing the cost savings needed to implement Bush's plan within a NASA that, after inflation, is funded at a flat rate for the next 15 years.
Currently, at least half the agency's $15.4 billion budget goes into human space flight, according to the commission - largely for the shuttle and the space station.
NASA is working on a new exploration vehicle that would carry astronauts to and from the space station and beyond. But Friedman maintains that this new vehicle needs to begin operation well before 2010 to allow the agency to jettison the shuttle - and realize the savings - as soon as possible. Cargos could be lofted with unmanned rockets. At this stage, NASA's plan calls for a new operational vehicle no later than 2014, with the first test conducted before the end of this decade.
Other technological needs range from life-support systems that are self sustaining, to advanced technologies for generating electricity or propelling rockets that don't rely on the sun or on engines that burn chemicals. Such elements would be needed for robotic or long-duration human missions to Mars and beyond.
Yet just as vital is the ability to sustain public and political support for such a long-range effort, analysts say. In the end, that support may hinge as much on how politicians want to be remembered as it does on broader economic arguments or those based on the "human spirit" of exploration.
Dr. Launius recalls an interview he held with Nixon adviser John Ehrlichman about the late president's decision to approve the space shuttle program after the Apollo program drew to a close. According to Launius, the two men were discussing the project, its cost, and whether the country could afford it.
Ehrlichman asked, in essence: Do you want to be remembered as the president who ended the US manned spaceflight program and grounded the heroes? Nixon approved the shuttle program.