Examining the Vision
A group of scientists, engineers, astronauts and policy analysts ponders the president's "New Vision for Space Exploration"
In January 2004, President Bush announced his "New Vision for Space Exploration" in a White House document titled "A Renewed Spirit of Discovery." It was, and still is, widely welcomed in the aerospace community as a response to the loss of the space shuttle Columbia and the resulting need to define a purpose for human space flight in a way that justifies the cost and risk.
The vision was remarkable because it included strong support for space science and robotic space exploration—for example, returning samples from Mars and searching for Earthlike planets beyond our solar system. But its primary focus was to set a new course for the human exploration of space, first with missions to the Moon and then to Mars. Even "beyond" was contemplated.
The first step, though, was simply to replace the space shuttle. The aging and tragically reduced shuttle fleet would, for reasons of safety, require either retirement or complete (and expensive) refurbishment. The latter option would block any move to send astronauts beyond low-Earth orbit. Thus the president committed to retiring the shuttle and ending its expensive operations, which would free resources to build a new rocket and get started on implementing the vision. The mantra was "go-as-you-pay": Future activities would be financed using funds that became available from the cessation of the shuttle program and from an anticipated modest growth in the NASA budget.
That was the theory. Practice has turned out a little differently. Despite the lip service given to the topic, including resolutions in Congress, promised increases in funding for the new initiative were neither proposed by the administration nor offered by legislators. Funds will presumably become available after the shuttle is retired in 2010, but in the meantime money is tight.
Not only does work on the vision have to be funded, but past-due bills arising from the Columbia accident had to be paid. No money was allocated for such obligations in the administration's first budget after it presented the vision. Rather, NASA was told to cut back on planned robotic exploration and space science and use those funds to implement a more narrowly focused version of the vision, one that weakened the goal of preparing for missions to Mars. Instead, the Moon was made the vision's destination, and the resulting Constellation program was described as "Apollo on steroids."
The redirection of planned science funding opened a rift between the science community and the human space-flight community. That effect was ironic, because "A Renewed Spirit of Discovery" had specified an integrated set of missions, robotic and human, with both science and exploration goals.