Bush team seeks big ideas

WASHINGTON — President Bush’s aides are considering a new lunar exploration program and other unifying national goals such as a campaign to promote longevity or fight childhood illness or hunger, as they sift ideas for a fresh agenda for the final year of his term, administration officials said Thursday.

Agencies and task forces in several parts of the government have been assigned to determine the cost and feasibility of a variety of such major ideas, which could cost billions of dollars at a time when the nation is running a substantial budget deficit.

An interagency group led by the White House, for instance, has been working since August on a blueprint for interplanetary human flight over the next 20 or 30 years to give NASA a new mission after the Feb. 1 disintegration of the space shuttle Columbia. Plans call for Bush to issue an ambitious new national vision for space travel by early next year, and officials said the initiative is likely to involve cooperation between NASA and the military.

The development of big ideas for Bush’s 2004 agenda is being led by Bush’s senior adviser, Karl Rove, the officials said. Administration officials said options have not been presented to the president, let alone decided, but the search is active for ambitious initiatives to flesh out a re-election agenda that also includes limiting lawsuits, making the tax cuts permanent and adding private investment accounts to the Social Security system.

One person who has been consulted by the White House said some aides appear to relish the idea of a "Kennedy moment" for Bush, referring to the 1962 call by President Kennedy for the nation to land a man on the moon, and return him safely to Earth, by the end of the decade.

A senior administration official said that "a lot of simultaneous efforts have been launched" in quest of such an idea, and that the efforts have been under way since at least late summer. The official said the planning was born of an effort to follow up Bush’s emergency plan for AIDS relief in his last State of the Union address, which called for spending $15 billion over five years to help countries in Africa and the Caribbean fight the pandemic

This official said Bush’s closest aides are promoting big initiatives on the theory that they contribute to Bush’s image as a decisive leader even if people disagree with some of the specifics. "Iraq was big. AIDS is big," the official said. "Big works. Big grabs attention."

An ambitious space travel plan is one possibility, though Bush aides said they are wary of repeating what they consider the mistakes of Bush’s father. On July 20, 1989, the 20th anniversary of the first human moon landing, President George H.W. Bush issued a call for a sustained commitment to human exploration of the solar system, with a return to the moon as a stepping stone to the main destination — Mars. NASA responded with a budget-shattering $400 billion plan that swiftly sank under its own weight.

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