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NASA chief: Space plan driven by need to explore

NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe
NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe

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Watch CNN's special report and coverage of the White House announcement, "Mission: Moon and Mars," with Miles O'Brien at 3 p.m. ET Wednesday.
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CNN's Bill Hemmer talks to NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe about expansion plans for the space program.
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National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)
George W. Bush
Sean O'Keefe
Space Exploration

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President Bush is expected to ask Congress for billions of dollars for NASA to fund missions to the moon and eventually to send astronauts to Mars.

NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe discussed the plan Wednesday in an interview with CNN anchor Bill Hemmer.

HEMMER: This program is going to cost billions and billions of dollars ultimately. Why is it worth it?

O'KEEFE: Well, it's not billions of billions in that context. We are talking about every taxpayer contributes, on average, about 15 cents a day. The price of a monthly cable television bill is what's being contributed by the average taxpayer. Less than 1 percent of the federal budget goes toward this, and that's not going to change.

What is different is the president is going to outline very specific exploration direction and objectives of what we should be targeting ourselves to, developing the technologies in order to achieve that, and that in his estimation -- what he will say today -- that is worth that.

HEMMER: The polls show an even split in terms of support for this. Are you going to have a tough time selling this idea to Americans?

O'KEEFE: I think every year, every year, there ought to be a spirited public debate over what the taxpayers' money, the people's money, is dedicated toward paying for. And that won't be any different this year.

What's going to be different I think in that respect is a new direction, a specific kind of focus that the president is going to enunciate today.

HEMMER: Sen. Bill Nelson out of Florida has flown on a shuttle mission before and says the 5 percent increase will not get us to the moon. Is this in the end going to be a higher price tag?

O'KEEFE: Well, the budget comes out in two weeks, and we believe the resources necessary to carry out the objectives the president will enunciate today are going to be included in this budget and forecast in the future. Let's wait to see the details before we make judgments.

HEMMER: How important is it for NASA and how important for the White House to give the impression and let Americans know that they are -- let's say -- big thinkers?

O'KEEFE: Again, it's about exploration. It's in the human heart. It's what we are all about as human beings, to want to see the other side of that hill, to explore and discover. It's what got us out of the caves in the first place. So much of what this is about is not the politics of it; it's about human nature, and that's what the president is really focusing on.

HEMMER: So if you are able to get a permanent base on the moon at some point within five or 10 years from now, what will that do for space exploration?

O'KEEFE: Well, having the capacity to use the moon as a staging area to get to anywhere else in the solar system is a huge advantage. Really, the biggest challenge we always have is getting off this planet, and that's what poses the most aggressive technological challenge. The moon is an easier basing structure for that purpose, but we'll see there are a lot of different alternatives we have to explore and look at to consider how we do that -- using robotic capabilities as well as human capabilities.

HEMMER: Critics will say that robots can do the job that humans cannot, and they can do it cheaper and with greater safety and security. Your response?

O'KEEFE: Well, look at the Mars rover on the planet now. Spirit is a remarkable piece of machinery. It's taken 10 days to move it off of this lander because you've got to do it very meticulously.

There's nothing like the cognitive skills of human beings presently, to make judgments at the time in order to really explore and do things that are necessary. So I think a combination of both is the focus the president will enunciate today, and that's exactly the direction we're going to go in.

HEMMER: The past year has been tough. You go back to February and the shuttle explosion over the state of Texas -- how are you addressing the risks involved going forward?

O'KEEFE: The risk of exploration throughout the course of human history has always been high. Our challenge is to mitigate, to minimize that risk as much as humanly possible. But to ignore that human instinct to want to go and explore and see the other side of that hill would be to deny our human nature.

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