September 18, 2005

With Shuttles Grounded, NASA to Offer Moon Plans

WASHINGTON -- With the shuttle fleet grounded and the International Space Station staffed by a skeleton crew, NASA is set to unveil plans on Monday to take people and cargo to the moon.

Even before the official announcement, there is criticism from Capitol Hill over the reported $100 billion cost of the lunar program, given U.S. government commitments to the Iraq war and recovery from Hurricane Katrina.

"This plan is coming out at a time when the nation is facing significant budgetary challenges," Rep. Bart Gordon, a Tennessee Democrat on the House Science Committee, said in a statement. "Getting agreement to move forward on it is going to be heavy lifting in the current environment, and it's clear that strong presidential leadership will be needed."

To get astronauts back to the moon for the first time since the Apollo 17 mission in 1972, one team of designers envisioned an Apollo-style capsule sitting atop rockets fashioned from shuttle components, including the shuttle's massive external tank and solid rocket boosters. There would be a separate space vehicle to carry only cargo.

The Web site reported that this scenario was presented to White House officials last week before its formal unveiling to the public on Monday. The new $100 billion lunar program would begin in 2018 by landing four people on the moon for a seven-day stay, reported.

NASA officials could not be reached for comment on Sunday.


President George W. Bush's plan to send Americans back to the moon by 2020 and eventually on to Mars has drawn skepticism since its unveiling in January 2004, less than a year after the February 1, 2003, shuttle Columbia disaster.

Bush's Vision for Space Exploration called for the development of a system to replace the aging shuttles, a goal that appears even more important given problems with the shuttle fleet's return to flight.

The same problems with falling debris that doomed Columbia recurred in July with the launch of Discovery, prompting the grounding of the shuttle fleet even as Discovery continued to fly its mission. A September shuttle mission was delayed until November and then to March.

Some $1.1 billion damage by Hurricane Katrina to NASA facilities in Louisiana and Mississippi could push the launch date back further still.

Bush's plan also mandated the completion of the International Space Station, but without shuttles to do the heavy lifting, that process has been on hold. A pair of Russian vehicles -- the space taxi Soyuz and the space delivery van Progress -- have been ferrying people and material.

Since the fatal Columbia disaster, only two-person crews have stayed aboard the station, rather than the normal three-person crew.

With the shuttles slated for retirement in 2010, NASA Administrator Michael Griffin has estimated that the number of construction flights to the station could be pared from its earlier estimate of 28 to 15.