LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - The ability of NASA to rise to the occasion and put into practice U.S. President George W. Bush's vision for space exploration appears to be up for grabs as his 2005 budget request now founders in Congress.
Meanwhile entrepreneurs believe the U.S. space agency's preoccupation with Mars is eclipsing in importance our closest celestial neighbor: the Moon.
Throughout its history, NASA has prided itself on meeting precise, right-to-the-second launch windows. This time, however, the stakes are higher than the targets the agency typically shoots for.
Yet while NASA undergoes an internal overhaul, financial roadblocks have appeared.
The President's 2005 budget request, containing the seed money for his ambitious Moon-to-Mars and beyond plan, has so far been rejected by a congressional panel, removing $1.1 billion from the $16.2 billion request.
Great thing on the table
"The space vision is tremendously important...we have a great thing on the table," suggested Wendell Mendell, NASA manager of the Office for Human Exploration Science at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.
Mendell was a key participant at the 5th annual Return to the Moon conference held here from July 16-18, organized by the Space Frontier Foundation.
An eyewitness to decades of space policy wrangling, Mendell said that a "reengineered" NASA -- a "radical, bottoms-up reconstruction" -- appears to be underway. There are new pressures and constraints going on inside NASA, as well as a movement toward serious reform and a refocusing of the civilian space agenda on exploration and science, he said.
It is apparent that there are forces within NASA solely fixated on Mars. And there's a huge fear in the Mars community, Mendell said, that once on the Moon...game over, with humankind never progressing to Mars and beyond.
"Let's at least get over it and try to get off the planet," Mendell said. "The Moon has a place in making sure we know how to do the management processes, the technical processes, the design processes, the operational processes...in order to conduct a Mars mission."
Private sector seeding
There are troublesome signs at NASA as its moves out on the new space vision, reported David Gump, President of LunaCorp, based in Reston, Virginia.
For the agency's back to the Moon kickoff project -- the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter -- NASA gave that job to one of its own, the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.
There are companies ready and willing to offer up a commercially-supplied alternative to a government funded, government operated, government owned lunar orbiter, Gump suggested. "So the first step has not been terribly auspicious in terms of involvement of the private sector," he added.
"I think we've got to insist that the infrastructure for going back to the Moon is commercially owned from the start," Gump said. "If there's a government base, it just won't happen."
Gump said that NASA has learned little over the years in dealing with the private sector and alternative space companies during the space shuttle and space station programs. He likened NASA to Agent Orange - the herbicide employed by the U.S. military during the Viet Nam War to destroy plants by interfering with their normal metabolism.
"Any seed of commercial activity that lands on it...immediately dies," Gump pointed out.
However, NASA's Mendell drew attention to the current stable of millionaires and billionaires who are plunking down their private bucks on space. There's need now to encourage, nurture, and grow this phenomenon, he said.
By nucleating these financial forces, the "undeveloped country we call space" could live long and prosper, Mendell said.
Transforming space into a robust market place -- like the one that flourished in the early days of aviation -- remains a hazy hope. That's the outlook of Courtney Stadd, a former NASA chief of staff and a past White House liaison for NASA.
"Unfortunately, I fear that we are quite a ways from that vision becoming a reality," Stadd said, adding that the Bush vision is "a good first step" and "a first downpayment" in trying to put such a marketplace in play.
"Is there money to be made in the future? I don't have a clue, frankly," Stadd said, but applauded the handful of entrepreneurs who are privately footing the bill on space projects.
Regarding NASA itself, Stadd explained that the space agency has a self-inflicted problem of trustworthiness. NASA has a "historical propensity" to underestimate the cost and technical challenges associated with achieving its ambitious goals, he said.
"That credibility issue is still one that they are grappling with" not only with Congress but also in building a relationship with the private sector, Stadd explained. "If NASA has to create everything from whole cloth...his whole vision is doomed to failure," he said.
In critiquing the recently issued report of the President's Commission on Implementation of United States Space Exploration Policy, Stadd saluted the group's push to reinforce the role of the commercial sector but felt the Commission's report was skimpy as an analytical product.
"I tend to put a paperweight on it because if I don't it tends to float up to the ceiling," Stadd said. While the Commission's report is moving in the right direction, it fails to address deeper issues about reforming NASA, he concluded.
A lunar purpose
While there may be squabbles about how best to structure a return to the Moon by way of private sector and/or governmental action, no need to convince former Apollo astronaut John Young about the overall value of the Moon.
As Apollo 16's commander, Young is a fervent back to the Moon supporter. "The Moon is a beautiful place," he said. "The Moon is in our future...it really is."
"One of these days, I sincerely believe that we'll have telescopes on the Moon that keep a really close eye on planet Earth. It'll tell us all about the ozone layer and everything that's going on around planet Earth...to look out for us," Young said.
Astronomy from the Moon is ideal too, Young said. He suggested that the James Webb Space Telescope would best be planted on the Moon instead of at an L2 orbit in free space as now planned. "You stick it out at L2...nobody is going to work on it when it breaks," he said.
Young contends that the Moon can grow to be a celestial light and power company to counter Earth's escalating energy needs. Then there's the ever-present threat from an incoming asteroid or a devastating eruption caused by a super volcano.
"I believe we're in a 'space race'", Young said. "By going back to the Moon and developing the technologies we need to live and work on the Moon, we'll protect the people of the future," he said.
Moment to savor
In the mind of Andrew Chaikin, author of the acclaimed book, A Man on the Moon: The Triumphant Story of the Apollo Space Program, NASA's new visionary quest is a "moment to savor," he said.
But Chaikin also said that the Moon, Mars, and beyond proposal is anything but a sure bet. "It is an issue that must rise above partisan politics. Space must be on our national radar screen," he advised.
"I think that it has been such a long time since anybody was on the Moon...we don't realize how cool it's going to be when there are people on the Moon again," Chaikin explained. "You can go outside and look up at the Moon and say there are people living up there."