To boldly go ... Bush tells Nasa to build new shuttle for Mars

President George Bush yesterday unveiled plans to replace the ageing space shuttle with a Nasa spacecraft designed for manned missions to Mars as well as the moon.

President George Bush yesterday unveiled plans to replace the ageing space shuttle with a Nasa spacecraft designed for manned missions to Mars as well as the moon.

The new craft, known as the Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV), would be ready for manned missions by 2014, and within the following six years would take astronauts to the moon to build a manned station, Mr Bush announced yesterday in a speech billed by the White House as the dawn of a new age of exploration.

"We do not know where this journey will end, yet we know this: human beings are headed into the cosmos," the president told Nasa employees.

He said the lunar station would be an affordable launching pad for a future Mars mission, which White House officials said could be launched by 2030.

"Spacecraft assembled and provisioned on the moon could escape its far lower gravity using far less energy, and thus, far less cost," the president said. "Also, the moon is home to abundant resources. Its soil contains raw materials that might be harvested and processed into rocket fuel or breathable air."

Meanwhile, the red planet will continue to be explored by robots, following the Spirit rover which was due to embark on a trip across the Mars surface last night in search of signs of water.

"Today we set a new course for America's space project ... we will build new ships to carry man forward into the universe to gain a foothold on the moon and prepare for new journeys to worlds beyond our own," Mr Bush said.

While work is underway on the CEV and on a new generation of rockets to take it into deep space, the shuttle programme will be phased out. It will continue to ferry people and supplies to the International Space Station orbiting the earth, which the president said would be completed by 2010.

After that, the shuttle would be withdrawn from service, as the new CEV is readied for its missions. Mr Bush said that in the next five years, the new spacecraft would be funded with $11bn (£6.02bn) transferred from other Nasa projects, and would only require only $1bn in new money.

It is not yet clear what the CEV would look like. Some proposals envisage another reusable craft with wings like the shuttle. Others predict a return to the single-use capsules that first took people into space. "It is going to look totally different to what the space shuttle looks like today," the head of Nasa, Sean O'Keefe, told CNN. "So we have to get about the business of developing that capability right away."

He said the new craft would be a robust, modular system that could be tailored to suit the ambitions and budgets of future exploration plans.

Critics allege that it is little more than a stunt, aimed at an election year. They point out that Mr Bush's father also announced a Mars mission when president in 1989, but the scheme was rejected by Congress when Nasa priced it at $400bn. The tag on the new initiative is considerably less, but space experts argue that even with savings from the shuttle and space station, the budget is unrealistic.

"The first year after Kennedy announced the Apollo programme, the Nasa budget was doubled," said senator Bill Nelson, a former astronaut. "And in the second year it was doubled again. That's not realistic today. But 5% a year increases are not going to get us to the moon."

"We have set these goals before and not met them," said James Lewis, an analyst at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies. But he added: "What makes this time different is that we have competition in space exploration - from China and Europe. Being passed by one of these countries would damage US prestige. This might be enough incentive to actually get us back to the moon and then to Mars."

Mr O'Keefe said the budgeted increases were only intended as seed money to develop concepts, but that the project would signify a more ambitious phase for manned exploration, which has been limited to low earth orbit since Apollo 17 - the last visit to the moon in 1972.

"I think what the president has touched on is an important aspect of what is part of our human makeup, which is to be explorers," he said. "It is part of what defines great nations and great objectives."

The Bush plan could leave a gap of up to five years between the retirement of the shuttle and before the launch of the CEV, leaving Nasa would have no manned craft for that period. There was a similar, nine-year gap between the end of the Apollo programme and the launch of the shuttle in 1981.

Nasa officials said the Bush initiative came from the investigation of the Columbia crash last February, which focused scrutiny on the longevity of the fleet and what should replace it.


Julian Borger in Washington

The GuardianTramp

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