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Editorial License by Ernest Lilley
Review by Ernest Lilley
SFRevu Column  ISBN/ITEM#: EL0401
Date: 01 Jan 2004 / Show Official Info /

President Bush proposed a new space initiative last week, and to the surprise of many, it was exactly what SF fans have been asking for for decades. A return to the moon with the development of Lunar manufacturing and staging, then on to Mars. He also proposed a phase-out of the aging shuttle and the development of a new vehicle that could do the job of reaching Low Earth Orbit reliably...but could eventually move beyond LEO to explore the solar system with human crews. In the meantime, he pointed out that there would be plenty of work for robots to do in paving the way for humans to boldly go where flesh and blood had not gone before.

Some other month I'm going to talk about the pros and cons of robots in space, but the upshot of that will be a "why can't we all just get along?" speech, so pretend for the moment that I've already convinced you that there will be plenty of space for bots and bios alike.

The big question is whether or not GWB's initiative will go down in history as an echo of his father's failed plan to do much the same thing, or something that the country got behind and pushed to completion. I still say the first step is to establish reliable access to Low Earth Orbit, and if we can do that then the rest will happen on its own merits...or not, and another look at the Delta-X program would be a good way to start the Crew Exploration Vehicle program off. In fact it might be a good idea for everyone to take a look at our own review of that program in Yoji Kondo & William A. Gaubatz's essay: Opening Space for the 21st Century.

I suspect that the whole thing might actually be a plan not to expand the exploration of space, but to curtail it. First by stopping the shuttle program and anything that it supports, including the International Space Station and Hubble. Second, by failing to find funding for the vision of exploration in later years. That's not a bad thing in my book, because it would break our addiction to NASA spaceflight and provide opportunity for the private sector, which I'd like to see regardless.

I thought it might be interesting to get a second opinion or two about the new space initiative, so I asked a few folks what they thought. Here are their comments:

Greg Bear (Moving Mars : A Novel): Bush gave a surprisingly well-prepared, well-thought-out speech, hitting most of the required bullet points with skill and grace. (I wish we had been so thoughtful and prepared and well-informed about Iraq.) That said, no bucks, no Buck Rogers--and we are so deeply in debt now that any increase in NASA's budget, even one so obvious and essential as this, will face stiff opposition, even from conservatives. Let's see how it works out. NASA is clearly rejuvenated with this mandate. And it's long overdue.

Kim Stanley Robinson (Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars): I don't have that much of interest to say about Bush's initiative. It doesn't seem to be getting much traction; people don't seem to believe he is serious about it. I don't either. That being said, the actual proposal sounds pretty good to me. The shuttle needs to be replaced, the space station finished and used for whatever it can be used for. The moon is a worthy destination, and Mars, of course, is too. The timelines are realistic, and it will be good for NASA to have a set of concrete goals and a kind of internal reorganization, to give focus to its efforts. The constant complaints that the money could be better spent for domestic purposes always miss the point; NASA's budget is 3% or less of the Pentagon's budget, and there's where the waste is destroying our domestic programs. It's a displacement to blame civilian space programs, and part of our society's dysfunctionality not to see that. I say, take the least necessary 50 billion from the Pentagon budget and devote it to NASA, the results would be strikingly positive. But then I am a science fiction writer.

Allen Steele (The Tranquility Alternative): Like many, I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, I'm very pleased to see a new major space initiative being made by the White House, particularly one that stresses a return to the Moon. I've been waiting 32 years for some President -- either Republican or Democrat -- to make such an announcement, and it's long overdue. On the other hand, although I believe that the proposed plan is something that can be implemented within the loose timeline that's been laid out, the question is whether it can be done within the rather meager budget that the Bush Administration proposes. If this is something that would be done, as in the past, entirely by NASA, then clearly the answer is no; the enormous cost over-runs of the International Space Station is evidence of that. Yet if it's undertaken as a public-private project, with the federal government supplying seed money and logistical support (e.g. launch facilities and mission control) to private companies interested in commercial space development, then it becomes much more feasible.

It almost goes without saying that Bush's reasons for making this announcement are entirely political; it's no coincidence that this initiative was proposed in an election year. All the same, it has the potential to revive and invigorate the American space effort at a time when it needs new long-term objectives, and so I remain cautiously optimistic.

Ian Randal Strock (The Artemis Project - Private Enterprise on the Moon): Anything that keeps people looking up is a good thing, and the fact that the President's proposal so prominently features the Moon is wonderful. People to the Moon, and then on to Mars, is not only exciting and romantic, but truly necessary for the long-term survival of the human race.

What disappoints me about the plan (aside from its complete absence from the State of the Union address) is the media's commentary on any space proposal. Space is the only government spending program about which people are asked of the cost, and it's made to seem grossly out of proportion. The fact is that NASA's budget, at some $15 billion, is less than 1% of the total federal budget, and the president's proposal calls for increasing it a mere $1 billion. Yet, with that supposed "huge" cost, NASA will have to kill the Hubble Space Telescope and destroy other unmanned space programs.

This is false economy, and truly meaningless to the federal bottom line. Dollars spent on space are not stuffed into a rocket and launched into orbit: they pay for salaries and equipment here on Earth. Great civilizations are known by their great accomplishments, and those accomplishments usually come at great risk. The US is a great civilization, and what greater accomplishment could we imagine than the permanent inhabitation of the Moon?

Having said all that, the Artemis Project welcomes the government's efforts to get people to the Moon to stay, which is the goal we've been working toward for a few years now. If NASA gets there first, we'll applaud and cheer. And if this proposal comes to naught, we'll keep plugging away to get there on our own.

---

The consensus seems to be that it's an idea we like, but we're wary of getting our hopes up. One wonders if there isn't more that we can do than just hope, and if the government hasn't been in the space business too long as it is..

Ernest Lilley
Editor - SFRevu

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