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U.S. eyes return to the moon

Eugene Cernan: Last man on the moon
Eugene Cernan: Last man on the moon

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The White House is talking of sending an American back to the moon
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National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- It has been 31 years since a U.S. astronaut last walked on the moon, but China's space ambitions have signaled a possible American return to the lunar surface as part of a renewed space program.

Aides to U.S. President George W. Bush say he is on the verge of calling for a return to the moon as part of a dramatic new mission for NASA.

Sources tell CNN the target for returning to the moon is about 15 years from now. But a lunar date is not yet embraced by a White House still debating key policy and multibillion dollar budget questions.

It remains to be seen if any of the plans actually lift off or if China and the United States embark on some form of a "space race". But on the table of American ideas is a permanent presence on the moon and even a manned mission to Mars.

Certainly, Bush wants to set bold new goals in space, but has not made key decisions, aides tell CNN.

"There are no plans for any policy announcements in the immediate future, " White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan confirmed.

China's first manned space flight in October and its talk of a future landing on the moon within the next two decades may end up being the spark to re-ignite the U.S. space program.

That program has been hit by cost cutting, budget restrictions and a stall in the wake of the Columbia space shuttle disaster.

"You've got the Chinese saying they're interested -- we don't want them to beat us to the moon. We want to be there to develop the sweet spots," Republican Senator Sam Brownback says.

Some analysts say a Chinese-American space rivalry may prove healthy and lead to other benefits such as new drug products, but other White House hawks see Beijing's space program more as a warning.

They say China could use a space base to test new rockets or other technology that may prove threatening to the United States at some later date.

Though the White House is not pleased some of the proposals have been leaked out -- possibly by NASA officials keen to push forward the space program -- it has given cause for enthusiasm among space visionaries.

Shortly after February's Columbia disaster, Bush quickly committed to resuming shuttle flights with NASA's latest target for a launch set as early as fall of 2004.

The Apollo 17 lunar module
The Apollo 17 lunar module "Challenger" liftoffs from its landing site at Taurus-Littrow.

"Mankind is led into the darkness beyond our world by the inspiration of discovery and the longing to understand. Our journey into space will go on," he said in February.

Among the administration's review of the space program:

• Setting a target for retiring the shuttle fleet

• A plan to phase out the International Space Station

• Picking a new space vehicle for manned flights

• Debating the costs and benefits of a permanent moon base

• Developing a proposal for a mission to Mars.

NASA has been urgently refining its space proposals and Vice President Dick Cheney is consulting key members of Congress.

Some are expecting Bush to make a pronouncement during a December 17 speech to mark the 100th anniversary of the Wright Brothers' first flight.

But the new space initiative is unlikely to be ready by then as many critical decisions remain.

Some top advisers tell CNN the proposal might not be completed by the time Bush delivers his State of the Union address in late January.

One thing is certain. For at least another 15 years or so, astronaut Eugene Cernan's bootprint from December 1972 will remain the last legacy of man on the moon.

CNN Senior White House Correspondent John King contributed to this report

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