There's nothing terribly remarkable about Building 29 at the Johnson Space Center in Houston until you consider that that's where they will be storing Mars--or at least a pretty good facsimile of it. Spread out inside the sprawling structure will soon be a dead-ringer Mars base, complete with habitat modules, an extraterrestrial greenhouse and even a ground cover of volcanic dust shipped in from Hawaii--about as close as you can get to real Martian dirt without actually visiting the planet. Astronauts training for a Mars mission could spend up to 600 days in this little village, learning to live in an unfamiliar world at least 35 million miles from Earth.
This ersatz Mars has been in the works for years, but until now few people have paid much attention to it, largely because nobody realistically expected to set human eyes on the genuine planet anytime soon. As of last week, however, Building 29 could become the center of the universe--or at least the center of NASA's universe. For the first time in a long time, cosmic planners were given reason to hope that after decades of drift, the U.S. is at last back in the space game.
In a move the White House probably saw as an election-year head snapper, President George W. Bush sketched out a long-term vision for manned spaceflight that goes far beyond the dog paddling in near-Earth orbit to which the space agency has confined itself since the 1970s. Back on the table is human exploration of the moon; back on the table is human exploration of Mars. Swept to the floor--or at least to the side--is the overbudget, underproducing International Space Station and the increasingly creaky, increasingly lethal shuttle fleet.
"Today," Bush said last week before an audience of jump-suited astronauts and NASA scientists, "I announce a new plan to explore space and extend a human presence across our solar system."
Maybe. It's just possible, however, that there's a lot less to the Bush plan than meets the eye--or matches the hype. The President's proposal does not call for any new footprints on the moon until 2015 at the earliest--43 years after the last ones were left. And though the year 2030 was bandied about in the press as a target for putting a man on Mars, the President was careful not to set a date. In 1989 the first President Bush called for a manned Mars landing no later than 2019, then stood back and watched the idea die, as the 30-year time frame--not to mention the $400 billion price tag--discouraged even the heartiest Mars partisans. A landing date 26 years down the line would be an improvement perhaps, but not a terribly meaningful one. While the current President took care to avoid the sticker shock of his father's plan, he might have gone too far in the other direction. The funding he has offered the program so far is just $1 billion spread out over the next five years, plus a reallocation of $11 billion already in the NASA budget--hardly adequate cash for a nation planning to settle the solar system.
The budgetary shake-up has already claimed a victim. The Hubble Space Telescope had been scheduled for a maintenance visit next year by space-shuttle astronauts. Now there is no money for the mission, and after 2010 there will be no shuttle anyway. One of NASA's greatest success stories, Hubble will probably wink out sometime in 2007.