The White House is reaching beyond NASA in a search for new ways to advance the nation's manned space program, challenging a near monopoly the agency has held for more than three decades.
It is doing so mainly out of frustration with the agency's high cost estimates for space ventures.It has asked two groups, the National Academy of Sciences and the Aerospace Industries Association, to conduct the search.
The hope is that they will uncover bold new ideas from industry, academia and federal research centers on how to send Americans to the moon and Mars, as President Bush vowed to do last year.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration will still have a fundamental role in evaluating many of the ideas, as well as developing its own. But its dominance in planning for the manned space program is being challenged for the first time in history.
``This has never happened before,' said Dr. John M. Logsdon, a White House adviser and director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University. ``This is an open window for new ideas.'
Arnold D. Aldrich, NASA's associate director for aeronautics and space technology, said the agency feels the move is highly appropriate.
``We think there definitely are other ideas out there,' he said. ``A lot of our ideas are good, but we certainly haven't covered the waterfront.'
The process has already begun. A panel set up by the industry association, which represents 54 aerospace companies, met for the first time last week, and the other panel is to start work this week.
Among the new ideas already under study are building cheap, inflatable spaceships and using less astronaut labor in favor of robots for assembly in space.
Federal officials said the National Space Council, whose chairman is Vice President Dan Quayle, turned to the groups mainly out of frustration with the cost of NASA's plan to go back to the moon and then on to Mars. Rough estimates put it at $400 billion over 30 years.
Quayle suggested the change Wednesday in a speech to astronomers, saying President Bush had asked the space council to create an aggressive space program that challenges ``accepted ways of doing business.'
The council, made up of Quayle and directors of 10 federal agencies, is the administration's top body for the formation of space policy.
The change comes as the Bush administration struggles to achieve what some experts dismiss as an impossible dream, given the nation's budget woes.
Last July, on the 20th anniversary of the first lunar landing, Bush called on the United States to establish a manned base on the moon and send an expedition to Mars.
Skeptics belittled the speech as political rhetoric with no firm commitment of money.
White House officials, citing NASA studies, conceded that the goals might cost $400 billion and that concrete plans had yet to be developed.
Bush put the project in the hands of the space council, which asked NASA to do a quick study of its feasibility. That report was delivered to the White House in November.
It laid out five approaches for meeting the president's goals, using techniques and technologies the agency has studied for years and sometimes decades. At the earliest, the plans envisioned a human presence on the moon in 2001 and on Mars by 2011.
Quayle was reported to be lukewarm about the report. After consulting with scientists and aerospace experts, he was sure, in the words of a federal official, that ``a redirection was necessary for the success of this effort.'