NASA’s broad new plan for space exploration would take
humans back to the moon and eventually to Mars.

Alfonso Diaz, a director of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight
Center, gave his program’s goal — supported by the Bush
administration — high marks in his speech at the University
Friday. But University aerospace engineers have expressed mixed
feelings about the agency’s new focus.

NASA will strive to meet President Bush’s new directive
for space exploration, Diaz announced in a speech at the
University’s Francois-Xavier Bagnoud building.

Faculty and students offered both praise and criticism of the
plan, saying a new vision for the future will spur NASA forward,
but the directive’s goals and timeline may be
unrealistic.

Bush’s directive calls for manned missions to the moon by
2020, with the goal of establishing a lunar base from which future
manned missions to Mars could be launched.

The plan also calls for robotic exploration of the moon by 2008,
completion of the International Space Station by 2010, retirement
of NASA’s aging space shuttles and construction of a new
shuttle by 2014.

“A lot of us have been waiting a long time for this kind
of (national) attention,” Diaz said.

The recent success of the Mars rovers and the tragic crash of
the space shuttle Columbia last February prompted NASA to look
inward at its organization and mission, Diaz said. The Bush
directive helped NASA redefine its focus, giving it a
“renewed spirit of discovery,” he said.

Tamas Gombosi, chairman of the Department of Atmospheric,
Oceanic and Space Sciences, said that NASA’s new plan will
benefit the agency and the nation.

“NASA the organization feels a new excitement as a
consequence of the new vision. I think NASA is very
invigorated,” he said.

Gombosi added that federal money spent on NASA aids the U.S.
economy, largely from industrial use of new science and technology
NASA has developed.

According to the NASA website, every dollar spent on programs at
the agency returns $7 in “direct and indirect
benefits.”

But engineering Prof. Tony England, a former astronaut,
expressed concern that Bush’s new directive will squeeze the
budgets of important ongoing NASA research. He mentioned studies of
the Earth and its changing climate as programs that may suffer.

“This program that (Bush has) outlined is so underfunded
that the only chance to make any progress on it is to gut
everything else,” he said.

Bush’s proposed budget for 2004 includes $1 billion in new
money for the directive and reallocates $11 billion more to the
plan from other NASA programs. He has proposed to boost
NASA’s total budget by 6 percent in 2005 to $16.2
billion.

Although England said he supports human space exploration, he
severely criticized the new plan’s focus on constructing a
base on the moon.

England, who worked as a geophysicist for the Apollo lunar
missions and flew on the shuttle Challenger in 1985, said science
does not support Bush’s claim that sufficient resources exist
on the Moon to aid future missions into space.

“The samples we brought back from the moon do not show any
of the mineral concentrations you usually think of when
you’re talking about mining for resources,” he
said.

His experience with lunar science, he added, makes him skeptical
that water will be found on the moon. Water is essential both to
sustain human life on the moon and to produce fuel cells for power
generation and rocket propulsion.

“If we commit to building bases and doing all this
infrastructure without understanding the problems we’re going
to find, we’re unlikely to spend our money or spend our
resources effectively,” England said.

Students also questioned NASA’s new plan. Raphael Ramos, a
graduate student at the College of Engineeering and project manager
for an instrument that will fly on the next space shuttle, said his
engineering experience made him question the directive’s
feasibility.

“I’m a young engineer, but I already know that
it’s difficult to establish a space program like the one
President Bush proposed of this time frame and follow through on
it,” he said.

Diaz seemed cognizant of the time crunch NASA faces in achieving
its new goals. “One of the things we’ve just realized
is we’d better get started because 2008 is a lot closer than
you’d think,” he said.

Still, Diaz said he is confident that NASA is moving in the
right direction.

“This is the kind of plan that any administration will
support,” he said. “I really believe that a version of
this plan will be sustainable.”

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