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Fly Me to the Moon, Too

George W. Bush's grand plans for manned missions to the Moon and Mars in the next decades have been greeted warmly by European and Russian space agencies. But some in Germany doubt the cost and point of such plans.


The ESA's Mars Express takes off recently - could Europeans be on board in the future?

The U.S. President's promise Wednesday to send new space shuttles to the Moon and "worlds beyond" beginning in 2020, has given wing to similar plans in Europe and Russia.

"This is important and good news," said Jean-Jacques Dordain, the general director of the European Space Agency. "Bush's announcement underscores the growing interest worldwide in space."

Speaking just two weeks before the one-year anniversary of the Columbia Space Shuttle disaster, Bush said he would ask Congress for $1 billion in new funding over the next five years and ask NASA to redirect $11 billion towards space travel and new shuttles. By 2010, Bush wants NASA to retire its aging fleet of space shuttles and replace them with a new generation of shuttles that would be able to return astronauts to the moon by 2020.

The President says a lunar base on the moon would be the stepping stone to possible manned missions to Mars, currently the terrain of probes and robots, like NASA's Spirit Rover. He emphasized cooperation with space agencies worldwide.

"The vision I outline today is a journey, not a race, and I call on other nations to join us on this journey in a spirit of cooperation and friendship," Bush said.

Europeans, Russians in Mars fever

Bild vom Mars

Image mosaic taken by the Mars Exploration Rover Spirit's panoramic camera

The European Space Agency, which was briefed prior to Bush's speech, would be a natural partner in such an undertaking. The Europeans have already been working on a similar program, begun in 2001, that sets 2030 as the goal for the first manned mission to Mars. The Aurora program plans unmanned trips to the moon and Mars as early as 2015.

Perhaps spurred on by all the interest, the Russian space agency Rosaviakosmos announced Thursday that it will most likely restart programs to research the moon and Mars by 2015. A Russian company, Energija, said it already had developed a rocket capable of reaching Mars and could build it within the next decade.

German space researcher Klaus-Dietrich Berge told Deutsche Welle that a manned Mars mission was "a definite possibility, especially when one goes from the Moon."

Berge, who directs the space travel section of the German Aerospace Center, said the technology the Americans plan to use for their Mars rockets already exists in parts.

"Footprints on Mars" not much help

Critics of the Bush plan have not been limited to American politicians questioning Bush's motives in an election year. German Education and Research Minister Edelgard Bulmahn has said that "human footprints on Mars won't bring us a step further down here."

That's where the ESA's goals differ from NASA's. The European space program is more "application oriented," said Berge. It aims at "bringing something to the people of Europe like Galileo [a global navigation system] or an Earth observation system to warn of natural catastrophes."

"We are more oriented back to Earth, where Americans are going outside Earth," Berge said.

Günter Lugmair, who is involved in the current NASA Mars exploration mission, doubted the technology and infrastructure was advanced enough to send people to Mars in the near future.

"From a purely scientific standpoint, the gain measured against the enormous costs is relatively small," said Lugmair, until recently the head of the well-respected Max Planck Institute in Mainz. "There are still so many un-researched things in manned space travel."

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