President George W. Bush is ready to announce new goals for the US space program next week, that could include manned missions to the Moon and beyond, US government officials said late Thursday.
In the wake of the successful landing of the Spirit mission on Mars, White House spokesman Scott McClellan told reporters Bush would have an announcement about the space program next week, confirming weeks-old rumors on the matter.
The spokesman did not go into details, but National Aeronautics and Space Administration sources said the plan could call for resuming manned lunar missions by around 2015 and to use the Moon as a springboard for putting people on Mars or even beyond at a later date.
NASA spokesman Glenn Mahone said Bush was expected to unveil the ambitious plan on Wednesday at NASA headquarters in Washington.
The new blueprint for space exploration was drawn up by Vice President Dick Cheney, NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe and representatives from the Defense Department and other government agencies, NASA officials said.
They said the plan calls for retiring the ageing space shuttle fleet by 2010 and scaling back US involvement in the International Space Station after it is completed by 2013.
NASA would develop an orbital space plane to ferry crews and cargo to the ISS -- a prototype could be ready by 2008, which could be later adapted for longer voyages to the Moon and Mars, NASA officials said.
During the period in between scrapping the shuttle fleet and developing the orbital space plane, NASA could use Russian Soyuz vehicles for its flights to the ISS, the officials added.
The sources could not estimate the cost projections for the new space program, but said it would be more than the 15.5 billion dollars the White House has requested for NASA in the 2004 budget awaiting approval by Congress.
The Washington Times Friday quoted government officials as saying NASA planned to pay for the new space exploration program with the money left over after it retires the space shuttle fleet, which now costs 3.5 billion dollars a year to maintain and operate.
If approved by Congress, Bush's space program, NASA officials said, would be the most ambitious plan for space exploration since the late US president John F. Kennedy promised in 1961 to put a man on the moon before 1970.
Bush on Tuesday congratulated NASA officials working on the Spirit mission.
"The president is strongly committed to the exploration of space, and, thanks to the great work of those at NASA, America continues to be on the leading edge of exploration and discovery," said White House spokesman Scott McClellan.
The rover's picture-perfect landing was a shot in the arm for the US space program, which is still reeling from the loss nearly one year ago of the space shuttle Columbia, which disintegrated upon reentry in Earth's atmosphere on February 1, 2003.
An identical mission, Opportunity, also including a rover vehicle is scheduled to land on the opposite side of Mars on January 25.
NASA is also happy with the success of its Stardust comet-hunting space probe, which has captured hundreds of thousands of particles from the tail of the Wild-2 comet and is scheduled to land back on Earth in 2006.
Stardust is the first mission aimed at collecting outer space material since US astronauts aboard the Apollo 17 mission brought back rocks from the Moon in 1972.
Meanwhile US rivals continue their race towards space.
China's budding space program last year blasted six satellites into orbit and joined the United States and former Soviet Union in putting a man in space.
China plans to send its next manned space mission within two years, launch an unmanned lunar landing program in 2004, with a lunar satellite sent up by 2007, and also has long-term plans for a manned mission to Mars.
India also has plans to reach the Moon by 2008.
Even Iran announced on January 5 that it will put its own satellite into orbit within 18 months. "Iran will be the first Islamic country to enter the stratosphere with its own satellite and its own, indigenous launch system," Defence Minister Ali Shamkhani said, the official news agency IRNA reported.
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Bush Wants To Send Americans Back To The Moon
Washington - Jan 09, 2004
US astronauts could return to the moon as early as 2013 if Congress backs an ambitious new space plan that President Bush is expected to unveil next week. According to a UPI report late Thursday night America will look at using Russian Soyuz and European Ariane rockets for human and cargo transport both to support the Station and in the lead up for a return to the moon, while developing a new Apollo-class spacecraft in multiple configurations.
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