Last week, President Bush outlined a new manned space policy, which sunsets both the Space Shuttle and International Space Station programs and sets out broad goals of establishing a permanaent base on the moon, in preparation for a several year manned mission to Mars.
Bush will likely propose increases to NASA's budget in the 5% per year range in the next several years, instead of the 3% - 4% range, as he proposed for his fiscal year '04 budget. These increases, in conjunction with the sunsetting of Shuttle and Station, will fund the new initiative. NASA's science endeavors won't be modified, except that the Hubble Telescope will be unable to continue work after sometime between '06 - '08.
There are a couple of things to note about this policy. First, the outlines of the policy in the near term are realistic. A 5% budget increase per year for NASA means that it will maintain its share of the national economic pie, rather than steadily decreasing, as it has been trending over the years. In a previous post, I outlined the general magnitude of our non-military space program over the last 50 years, which shows this progression.
Second, the policy sunsets about $5.5 billion per year in programs, Shuttle and Station, that need to be killed in the worst way. For instance, Shuttle costs $3.5 billion per year, while launching 4 times at most, an astoundingly bad cost/benefit ratio. Besides Station construction, the only reason for Shuttle to live is for a single Hubble maintenance mission (which is, in itself, not strictly necessary). Once completed, Station will cost about $1 billion a year to maintain. Station is an international project, which limits how fast we can wind it down, but it provides us very little in the way of benefit (Station cannot really be used as a building-block for any other manned project).
Third, the manned space program has to have an overriding goal or set of goals to justify its existence. Without this goal, it is difficult to garner the support of your average American. It has been doing without this kind of goal for three decades. Unfortunately, manned spacefaring is extremely expensive, meaning that there are very few real destinations for manned projects in a reasonably short period of time (e.g., a human lifespan): (1) the moon; (2) an asteroid/comet; and (3) Mars. (1) and (3) can be complementary. So if you support US manned spacefaring, it's tough to argue with Bush's proposal.
There is a lot of discussion about the timeframe of going to the moon and Mars, but I would only note that unless you believe that the political will is there to fund a project several times the magnitude of the Apollo program in a decade or so, it will take a good deal of time just to muster all of your resources. In other words, it's the nature of manned space travel. These goals necessarily have a long time horizon. As a society, long-term government projects are nothing new. Transportation projects take decades to come to full fruition, for instance. I am confident that as a nation we have the needed perserverence.
Looking at the totality of the policy, I think it's solid and will probably receive backing of the congress, at least in the next few years. Whether or not we actually land on Mars is another thing entirely. We might decide in the meantime as a nation that this goal isn't as worthy as another. We might decide that it is more worthy than other national goals, in which case the pace can be quickened and funding increased. Lastly, we might find that there is a better, cheaper, or more durable way of accomplishing the goal. Such flexibility is a good thing.