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Expert warns NASA can’t afford Mars plan

An aerospace executive warned a presidential commission in US on Wednesday, last week that NASA does not have enough money — or bright young stars — to achieve President Bush’s goal of returning astronauts to the moon and flying from there to Mars.

“It would be a grave mistake to undertake a major new space objective on the cheap. To do so, in my opinion, would be an invitation to disaster,” said Norman Augustine, retired chairman of Lockheed Martin Corp. and head of a panel that examined the future of the space program for the first President Bush.

Augustine was among five aerospace experts who addressed the first public hearing of the current President Bush’s space exploration commission, held in Washington.

Commission member Neil deGrasse Tyson, an astrophysicist who is director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York, asked Augustine whether $15 billion a year for 10 years would be enough to set NASA on course to fulfill the moon-and-then-on-to-Mars vision put forth by Bush one month ago. The space agency’s annual budget has been around $15 billion in recent years.

Augustine pointed out that during the next decade, NASA will still have the enormous cost of running all its centers, the space shuttle fleet and the international space station, not to mention conducting research. He said the nation traditionally has underestimated the cost of big programs.

Neither Bush nor NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe has put a price tag on the plan to return astronauts to the moon by 2020, let alone sending them on to Mars a decade or more later. The president has proposed an extra $1 billion for NASA over the next five years for the initiative, and has directed the space agency to reallocate $11 billion within its budgets over the next five years to cover startup costs.

Retired Air Force Gen. Lester Lyles, another commission member, noted that this is a national program, not a NASA program, and that the budgets and technologies of other government agencies could be tapped into.

The commission’s chairman, Edward “Pete” Aldridge, a retired Pentagon official, said both the White House and NASA believe the new space initiative is affordable with small budget increases and reallocations, at least for the foreseeable future.

The nine-member commission has 120 days to complete its review of how best to implement the policy, and report back to the president. Virtually everyone at the hearing supported the idea of a national space council or some other type of clearinghouse to oversee the effort, and stressed the need for strong White House support and also youth appeal.

Mark Bitterman of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s space enterprise council told commission members that they should take advantage of the high interest in the two NASA rovers now roaming Mars.

“We should be trying to tie them today, as best we can, to what we’re trying to do later,” he said. “We need to strike while the iron’s hot.”