NASA gave new meaning to the term "retro-rockets" last week, by reaching back into older concepts for a new-generation Moon exploration spacecraft. Given the costs involved during a time of wars and disasters, Congress may well decide to return to the original meaning and fire the braking rockets on this concept.
That might be a shame. If the National Aeronautics and Space Administration can stay within its already-outlined annual budgets to pull off a new Moon landing by 2018, as it claims, the program could provide a needed spark not only for space exploration and technology development but for revitalization of science and engineering education. That's a big if. Rep. Sherwood Boehlert of New York, the Republican chairman of the House Science Committee, sees "no credible way" a new manned capsule can be developed without substantial eventual increases in NASA's annual budget.
President Bush's 2004 election-year vision of a return to the Moon and an eventual voyage to Mars is one thing. Finding a way to pay for it, given the costs of the president's war in Iraq and large-scale domestic hurricane relief, is quite another. NASA plans to stay within its current $16 billion budget by retiring the space shuttle program to help pay for this one, dubbed the Crew Exploration Vehicle. It would graft new technologies onto old concepts remarkably like the Saturn-Apollo rockets that first reached the Moon, finishing the International Space Station and in general focusing funds from other projects on this one. But many of those projects already have cost overruns, and Boehlert may be right.
Essentially, NASA wants to do again what it did in the late 1960s and early 1970s -- at half the inflation-adjusted cost, but in twice the time. That's not exactly a stirring call to action, as a Mars landing might be. But it is a spark.