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Gary Younge
US plans moon settlement before heading on to Mars

The US president, George Bush, will announce plans next week to build a human settlement on the moon, with a view to sending humans to Mars.

In an attempt to reinvigorate the space programme, still reeling from last year's Columbia shuttle tragedy, Mr Bush will unveil plans to create a permanent science base for people on the moon. Once there, aides say, scientists could test the equipment and techniques vital to making the significant technological advances demanded for sending astronauts to Mars more than a decade from now.

"The president directed his administration to do a comprehensive review of our space policy, including our priorities and the future of the programme, and the president will have more to say on it next week," said presidential spokesman Scott McClellan.

Shortly before his state of the union address, and in the midst of the Democratic primary campaign, Mr Bush also has his sights closer to home at the beginning of this election year.

The arrival of Nasa's Spirit rover on Mars on Saturday has proved extremely popular. Between 3am on Saturday and 9am on Thursday the Nasa website received 1.45bn hits, which Nasa officials believe marks the biggest online event ever for the US government.

But the costs of the plan, particularly in the light of Nasa's widely publicised difficulties, could be politically and economically prohibitive. In 1989, on the 20th anniversary of the first human moon landing, Mr Bush's father, George Bush Sr, proposed a similar expedition which would begin "the permanent settlement of space".

When Nasa handed him an estimate of $400bn for the project, the plan was sunk.

Given the ballooning budget deficit, which the administration has pledged to halve over the next five years, spending huge amounts on space exploration could be unpopular. The body that would be entrusted with the programme, Nasa, came in for scathing criticism last year following the Columbia tragedy. An investigation board into the disaster described leadership at Nasa as "ineffective" and stated that "if these persistent, systemic flaws are not resolved the scene is set for another accident".

A Nobel-winning physicist who was on that board has criticised the latest plan, arguing that more affordable robots should be used for the exploration of lunar and Martian surfaces. "The cost of a manned enclave on the moon, I think, is going to make the space station look cheap. That's the only good thing about it," said Douglas Osheroff of Stanford University. "I think we're still 30 years from going to Mars and if there's any reason to do that, I don't know."

But the board also called on Nasa to set out a clearly defined long-term mission beyond the space shuttles and the international space station. Advocates of the plan say this could be it.

It "led the administration to say we need to articulate a vision for the programme and give a sense of where we're going and why," said John Logsdon, who was also on the Columbia board. "If we're going to expand beyond Earth's orbit, this is the logical progress that we need to make."

Nasa administrator Sean O'Keefe says the robots on Mars represent an advance team assessing the planet's conditions. "Once we figure out how to deal with human effects we can then send humans to explore in real time," he said on Wednesday.

With current technology the moon is just three days away, while Mars is at least six months from Earth.

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