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NASA Moon, Mars Missions Seen Gaining Funds Despite Fiscal Crunch

By | June 19, 2006

      The U.S. government will fund vastly expensive NASA missions to the moon, Mars and beyond in coming decades, even though federal finances are constrained by daunting deficits, an industry leader predicted.

      For multiple reasons, funds will be found to fulfill American dreams of going where no man has gone before, according to John Douglass, president and CEO of the Aerospace Industries Association. He spoke in an interview with Space & Missile Defense Report.

      To be sure, he doesn’t lightly dismiss the financial challenge, saying that funding for NASA will have to be increased, by an order of magnitude, to support those heavenly ambitions.

      The price of space travel can be intimidating. For example, President Kennedy in the 1960s paused, and thought long and hard, when told just how much it would cost for the United States to go to the moon. But he summoned the courage to commit the nation to fund it.

      Similarly, the United States will be equal to the challenge of funding the next voyages beyond Earth, Douglass said, albeit this time (perhaps) with international partners.

      One key impetus for the United States to lay money on the line for these missions is quite basic, Douglass indicated: What’s the alternative?

      The United States will not quit the adventure of space travel and surrender the field, by default, to others, he said.

      As Americans “we do not want to cede the exploration of our solar system to other nations,” Douglass said.

      “America is going to remain a technological leader,” he said. The nation won’t surrender its position as a leader of technological development and innovation in the aerospace area, he said.

      After all, Douglass reasoned, if the United States withdraws from space exploration for a lack of funds, then the result would be to leave the exploration of the solar system to the Europeans, the Chinese or others, which he said would be untenable for Washington leaders and the American people.

      Another salient point militating against any unilateral U.S. withdrawal from space exploration, he said, is that however large the cost of such missions might appear in dollar terms, they would be insignificant in comparison to the heft of the U.S. economy, the largest of any nation on the planet.

      “In the grand scale of things,” Douglass said, the costs of returning to the moon and then voyaging through interplanetary space would equal “a small amount of the American economy.”

      Some critics have questioned whether money will be found each year to finance President Bush’s vision of missions to the moon, Mars and beyond, given that federal ledgers are stained with the red ink of $300 billion-$400 billion of deficit spending each year.

      But Douglass notes that Washington nonetheless has found substantial sums of money when they are needed.

      For example, “where did all the money come from for the war in Iraq?” he asked. Some estimates peg the bill for wars in Afghanistan and Iraq at $300 billion and climbing.

      In a similar vein, the government in recent years has supported costly programs to counter bird flu, and to back recovery from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, he noted.

      While he didn’t mention them, the government also has launched new programs such as the Medicare drug benefit initiative costing hundreds of billions of dollars, and tax cuts costing in the trillions of dollars.

      In like manner, Douglass predicted, “we’ll find the money to do this [space exploration] as well.”

      True, to finance the return to the moon, and then to enter the void of interplanetary travel, “NASA’s funding will have to be substantially higher than it is today,” Douglass said.

      How much higher?

      NASA funding, the Bush administration fiscal 2007 budget estimates, will come in at $16.8 billion for the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2007.

      Douglass indicated that a full estimate of space programs funding might be $18 billion to $19 billion yearly.

      To adequately fund the missions beyond Earth, Douglass said, would require “at least twice that, and some think more.”

      Asked what a manned mission to Mars might command, Douglass said that would depend upon how it is executed. For example, would there first be unmanned robotic missions, followed by human flight to the red planet?

      And the price tag to the United States as well would depend on whether NASA goes it alone, or recruits a multinational team with many countries sharing the financial burden.

      But venture into space we shall, he said. Manned excursions into space constitute “a program the people support,” Douglass said. And in the White House and Congress, “there’s bipartisan support [for space programs] on both sides of the aisle.”

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