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U.S.: Bush Space Proposal -- Vision Or Political Maneuver?

This week, U.S. President George W. Bush is expected to announce a new space initiative that would involve a permanent base on the moon for eventually sending astronauts to Mars. Is the United States again stepping forward to lead the human race into space -- or, as some in Washington say, is the announcement aimed more at gaining popular support in an election year?

Washington, 12 January 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Less than 13 months ago, NASA, the American space agency, appeared to be teetering on the brink of oblivion.

MISSION CONTROL IN HOUSTON: "Columbia, Houston, we see your tire-pressure messages and we did not [understand] your last [transmission]." COLUMBIA: "Roger, uh ..." (Shuttle transmission abruptly ends.)

That was the last exchange between the agency's mission control in the city of Houston and the space shuttle "Columbia," just before the space plane broke into pieces during its return to earth on 1 February 2003. All seven astronauts aboard were killed.

NASA's fortunes, however, appear to be changing with the landing early this year of the "Spirit" probe on the surface of Mars. The agency's administrator, Sean O'Keefe, summed up the feelings of his colleagues when he announced the success.

"This is a big night for NASA. We are back. I am very, very proud of this team, and we're on Mars. It is absolutely an incredible accomplishment," O'Keefe said.

As if to reinforce NASA's new sense of success, this week Bush is expected to announce a new initiative to establish a permanent space station on the moon to serve eventually as a springboard for manned space flights to Mars.

John Logsdon is the director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University in Washington, and he was a member of the board that investigated last year's shuttle disaster.

Logsdon tells RFE/RL that during the course of its inquiry, the panel became very critical of what he called "the lack of vision" -- the lack of an overarching goal -- for the American space program. In later months, he says, the White House began reviewing just what that "vision" should be and came up with the initiative that Bush will announce.

"I think the general [view] [of the Bush administration] is that without some long-term purpose that includes going beyond earth's orbit, the government program of having human space flight doesn't really have much of a purpose," Logsdon said.

This is not the first time a president has tried to reinvigorate the American space program. In 1989, Bush's father, President George Bush, proposed resuming flights to the moon. But the total cost -- $400 billion -- was too great for Congress, which voted to kill the measure.

The current initiative is expected to cost more than the 1989 proposal. Some estimates are that it will cost at least twice as much. And yet the current President Bush is going ahead with it during a time when the nation's economy is only beginning to recover from a recession and the federal government is running enormous deficits.

Some of Bush's political opponents are suggesting that Bush expects Congress to reject his space program, just as it rejected his father's. They say he is proposing it merely to enhance his campaign for re-election in the general election on 2 November.

Logsdon, who has worked in the American space program for decades, rejects the suggestion flatly.

"Well, I don't agree with the premise," he says. "If you listen to Congress in its hearings through last year -- after the [shuttle] accident and after the Columbia report was released in August -- there was a constant call for a new vision. So I think Congress -- at least some leaders in Congress -- has been asking for this kind of vision."

This does not mean that Logsdon does not expect a debate on the issue. He does. After all, he says, there are some members of Congress who believe a manned space program is too expensive. But, he says, both the Senate and the House are controlled by Bush's Republican Party, and he expects the president's proposal eventually will prevail.

Larry Sabato agrees. Sabato is a political analyst and professor of political science at the University of Virginia. He says he sees a political motive in the proposed space initiative in that Bush may want to use it to define his second presidential term if he wins in November.

"The problem for presidents running for second terms is often they've accomplished a great deal of what they intended to during the first term and they have to come up with a rationale for a second one. Otherwise people are likely to say, 'Well, he's done his thing, now let's try somebody else.' This is part of Bush's process of seeking a rationale for the second term," Sabato said.

Sabato adds that like his father, Bush may face resistance in Congress. The project will be expensive, he says, and there are many who believe this amount of money could be better spent on more pressing needs. NASA's budget for this year is about $15 billion.

Still, Sabato notes that fellow Republicans in Congress may give him at least some of what he is looking for

"There is a Republican [majority in the] Senate and House. They may well find their [congressional majorities] strengthened in the November elections, so it's difficult to say whether this will go through or not. The odds are at least a piece of it will be passed. We'll have to see how big a piece," Sabato said.

Sabato notes that Bush has plenty of opportunities to play politics in this campaign year, but that a major space initiative is unlikely to be an empty campaign promise. The reason, he says, is that when a president begins working toward a second term in office, he thinks of his legacy.

"Presidents love big things that will loom large in the history books. Remember, if it actually happened, it would mean space exploration going on 20, 30, 40 years from now, and when commentators are writing about it, they'll say, 'This began with President George W. Bush in the early 21st century.' That's what presidents love. They want to live long beyond their terms," Sabato said.