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The Vision at Three Years and Counting

When U.S.President George W. Bush stepped to the podium at NASA headquarters here Jan. 19, 2004, tocall for returning humansto the Moon by 2020, cynics could be forgiven for giving the Vision for SpaceExploration little chance of succeeding.

Many watchingthe president's speech that day also had been watching 15 years earlier whenthe first President Bush delivered a speech on the steps of the National Airand Space Museum calling for sending humans back to the Moon in preparation for eventual missionsto Mars.

The SpaceExploration Initiative, or SEI, never progressed beyond viewgraphs, its growthstunted by an unsupportive Congress, infighting between the White House andNASA, and a hastily calculated price tag that gave the nation sticker shock. Byits third anniversary, the SEI was little more than an inadequately fundedOffice for Exploration run by then-associate administrator Mike Griffin.

TodayGriffin runs all of NASA, wielding a $16 billion budgetmore than a fifth of which is dedicated to building a spaceshuttle replacement capable of launching astronauts on trips to the Moon.

ForGriffin, there is no comparison between what has been accomplished under theVision for Space Exploration in the first three years and how far SEI got inthe same amount of time.

"The Visionfor Space Exploration was enacted as the law of the land," Griffin said in arecent interview, referring to the NASA Authorization Act of 2005 endorsingbuilding new vehicles to replace the space shuttle and carry astronauts to the Moon by 2020.

Congressalso has shown its support with money, providing $9 billion for explorationsince Bush rolled out the vision. While a substantial amount of that fundinginitially went towards now-defunct legacy projects rolled into the explorationprogram--notably the proposed multibillion dollar Prometheus space nuclearsystems initiative--NASA has received sufficient budget to go well beyond theviewgraph stage. Scott Horowitz, the former NASA astronaut hired away from ATKThiokol in late 2005 to run the U.S. space agency's$3.4-billion-a-year-and-growing Exploration Systems Mission Directorate, saidthe vision has progressed in its first three years from a statement of goalsand objectives to a bona fide program that has signed contracts and startedbuilding hardware.

"[W]e arealready cutting metal and testing components for AresI and Orion,"Horowitz said. "By year four, we will have all major elements under contract toprovide the new capabilities to replace the space shuttle after it retires in2010."

Griffinechoed those comments in a recent interview.

"We havevehicles in procurement right now and others yet to come," Griffin said. "We'regrappling with the real world of program management in the Washingtonenvironment, the SEI was shut down frankly when President Clinton came topower. We're in an entirely different world."

That world,however, is far from perfect. NASA has not been given the budget increases theWhite House initially promised, forcing the agency to make unpopular cuts to scienceand aeronautics to keep its human spaceflight programs adequately funded. And adecision by the new Democratic Congress to fund most federal agencies this yearat last year's levels has left NASA's exploration planners struggling with a$500 million shortfall that Griffin recently announcedwould delay the introduction of the OrionCrew Exploration Vehicle and its Ares I rocket to2015.

While NASAstill hopes to shoot for the Moon by 2020, agency officials readily concede thenext four years or so are all about completing the International Space Station,retiring the shuttle, and building and testing Ares and Orion. Work on theheavy-lift rocket, lunar lander and other hardware needed to send astronauts tothe Moon is not due to really get started before the shuttle is done flying.Even the series of robotic precursor missions Bush called for in his landmark2004 address now appears likely to be scaled back to a lone LunarReconnaissance Orbiter and a piggy-backpayload NASA added to the mission because it had room on the rocket.

No less ahardcore human space exploration proponent that Griffin recently acknowledgedthat -- at least for now -- the vision is primarily a space shuttle replacementeffort.

"Many folkshave said, 'I'm not worried about the Moon right now.' I would say to them,'I'm not worried about the Moon right now either.' I'm worried about replacingthe shuttle," Griffin told the Senate Commerce space and aeronauticssubcommittee during a Feb. 28 NASA budget hearing.

Of the morethan $16 billion NASA plans to spend between now and 2010 on explorationsystems, roughly 80 percent is designated Orion and Ares, with the restbudgeted for lunar robotics programs, space station-based research, and otheradvanced technology development efforts.

By 2011,the first year NASA expects to be out from under the $3 billion to $4 billion ayear it spends on shuttle, exploration systems is expected to consume nearlyhalf of NASA's total budget, with upwards of 90 percent of exploration fundinggoing toward completing Ares and Orion and getting started on the Ares 5heavy-lift rocket and other Moon-bound hardware.

WhetherNASA gets to hold on to the money freed up by retiring the shuttle and use itto shift its space exploration plans into a higher gear remains to be seen.

JohnLogsdon, a NASA advisor and George Washington University space policy expert,said whoever wins the White House in 2008 will have no choice but to see Orionthrough to completion if he or she wants the United States to have its own meansof launching humans into space. Continuing to fly the shuttle will not be anoption, he said, because--as NASA's human spaceflight chief William Gerstenmaierput it recently--the agency is already nearly "past the point of no return" onretiring the shuttle.

But thenext president will get to decide, Logsdon said, whether to stop with fieldinga new capsule capable of going to the space station or push on with thenecessary investment to send humans to the Moon. That decision, he said, willhappen in 2010 when the White House and NASA prepare their first post-shuttlebudget.

"That's thebudget in which the decision on how to use the resources freed up by endingshuttle flights will be made," Logsdon said. "That's when we make the decision[about whether we] are we going to take Ares V, the lunar lander and Earth departure stage into development ornot ... We could just decide to go on with the utilization of the station and flyOrion [there] for a decade or more."

How muchprogress NASA is able to make on Orion and Ares by the time there is a newpresident in the White House depends on much more near-term politicaldecisions, starting with this year's budget.

Griffinrecently warned that giving NASA anything less than its full request for 2008would inflict "grave and lasting damage to the program."

To NASA'sadvantage, the agency has some key lawmakers out looking for more money for theagency, including Sens. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), the chairwoman of the SenateAppropriations subcommittee that drafts NASA's budget; Bill Nelson (D-Fla.),the chairman of the Senate Commerce space and aeronautics subcommittee, and hisRepublican counterpart Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas.

In theHouse of Representatives, however, there are fewer strong NASA supporters inkey positions.

HouseScience and Technology Committee Chairman Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.) said in arecent interview that he supports the Moon-Mars initiative, but does not thinkhis views are widely shared among his House colleagues. "There's not much of anunderstanding of it," he said, a political reality he blames on the president'sfailure to promote the vision the way he does other policy priorities. "So it'snot a matter so much of not supporting it, but supporting other NASA interestsmore. That's the dilemma we have."

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