President George W. Bush would call for relatively modest budget increases to pay for the early stages of his plan to send humans back to the moon and on to Mars, government officials said Friday. But for reasons both technological and political, the administration was vague about the long-term costs of the proposal.
Government officials and outside experts who have seen the proposal said Bush would call for a gradual program of research and development, freeing him from putting a specific price tag on a decades-long project that would not come to fruition until long after he was out of office.
The officials said Bush would propose a funding increase for NASA next year of around 5 percent, or US$750 million, with similar increases for the remainder of the five-year budget sent to Congress next month.
Additional money would come from reallocating funds going to other space projects.
Officials said the reallocation assumed a phaseout of the space shuttle program, and left open the possibility that NASA would eventually have to make tradeoffs between manned and unmanned space projects to pay for the new initiative.
Bush is scheduled to announce his plans on Wednesday in Washington, the White House said Friday, and officials said he would set a goal of returning to the moon in eight to 10 years and eventually sending people to Mars. But the administration remained mum about many of the essential questions surrounding the proposal.
Republicans said the initiative could give Bush's presidency -- or at least his election-year agenda -- a legacy-inspiring flavor of something beyond the polarizing issues of the war with Iraq and big tax cuts.
"If his proposal matches the headlines, it is the right direction and a significant political asset in the long run," said Newt Gingrich, the former Republican House speaker. "Those who jump up and down and say, `Don't go to the moon, don't go to Mars,' have a hard argument because they are up against 250 years of optimism in American history."
But Democrats said that merely putting the nation on a path toward a manned mission to Mars would highlight issues like health care, education and retirement benefits, that remain underfunded and unresolved on Earth.
But politics does not stop at the atmosphere's edge. At a rally in Rochester, New Hampshire, on Friday for his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, Howard Dean, the former Vermont governor, suggested that Bush's motivation was political and he asked how the program would be paid for.
"I happen to think space exploration is terrific," Dean said. "Where is the tax increase to pay for it? It is not worth bankrupting the country."
John Logsdon, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University in Washington, said he considered the plan a serious effort to give new direction to the space program.
But he said it would be harder for Bush than it was for President John F. Kennedy in the early 1960s to make the space program a national rallying point. Space travel is no longer new and exciting, he said, and one of the main rationales for the Apollo program, beating the Soviet Union to the moon, is not applicable.