Senior administration officials said Thursday night that Bush will announce his plans in a speech next week. The president wants to aggressively reinvigorate the space program, still reeling from the Columbia tragedy nearly one year ago, said the officials, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The White House has been looking for a new revitalizing role for NASA for months, with Vice President Dick Cheney leading the interagency task force since the summer. The speculation over a major space initiative began heating up in early December.
Many insiders expected Mr. Bush to use the 100th anniversary of the Wright brothers' first flight as the backdrop for the announcement. But he focused instead on aviation and said the United States would continue to lead the world in that field. Speculation then shifted to the State of the Union address in late January.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan declined to provide details of the president's plans, confirming only that Mr. Bush would unveil them next week. NASA officials did not return phone calls Thursday night.
Mr. Bush's fresh interest in space happens to coincide with an election year. A new bold space initiative, it is thought, could excite Americans.
It was the Columbia accident that helped force a discussion of where NASA should venture beyond the three remaining space shuttles and the international space station. The panel that investigated the disaster called for a clearly defined long-term mission — a national vision for space that has been missing for three decades.
Rep. Ralph Hall, a Texas Republican who is a member of the House Science Committee, welcomed the news.
"I had the feeling the last 2 ½ years people would rather make a trip to the grocery store than a trip to the moon because of the economy," Hall said. "As things are turning around, we need to stay in touch with space and the science spinoffs it provides."
But a Nobel-winning physicist who investigated the shuttle accident is among those who would rather see more affordable robots — rather than astronauts — exploring the lunar and Martian surfaces. He points to NASA's Spirit rover newly arrived at Mars.
"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 Stanford University's Douglas Osheroff.
Mr. Bush does not intend to propose sending Americans to Mars anytime soon, but instead envisions preparing for a Mars expedition more than a decade from now, one administration official said.
Astronauts last walked on the moon in 1972; in all, 12 men tread the lunar surface over a 3 1/2-year period. This time, the president favors a permanent station, administration officials said.
Many space buffs see the moon as a necessary place to test the equipment and techniques that would be needed by astronauts on Mars. It's closer, just three days away versus six months away for the red planet.
Visionaries say observatories could be built on the moon and mining camps could gather helium-3 for conversion into fuel for use back on Earth.
Others, however, contend that astronauts should make a beeline to Mars.
Whatever the timetable, no one knows what the new venture might cost or how NASA would pay for it. House Science Committee spokeswoman Heidi Tringe said lawmakers on the panel had yet to be briefed on the specifics.
Mr. Bush's father, on the 20th anniversary of the first manned moon landing, made a similar call for lunar colonies and a Mars expedition. But the plan was prohibitively expensive — an estimated $400 billion to $500 billion — and went nowhere.
For the project, the space agency will have to go back to the drawing board to get the job done. The rockets, equipment and engineers that put American footprints on lunar soil have long been lost, junked or retired.
For the seven moon-landing missions from 1969 through 1972, NASA built small crafts that couldn't carry the supplies for a lengthy stay on the moon, let alone a trip to Mars.
Those earlier missions were boosted into space with the giant Saturn V rocket. After the Apollo program ended, the equipment, tools and plans for building the rocket were lost. A new lunar and Mars effort could require even larger lift rockets, depending on the mission scheme selected.
Planners would also have to figure out how to power and supply the colonies.
NASA will also have to overcome some of the management problems found during the probe of last year's shuttle disaster. A safety panel found communication problems between managers and scientists, funding pressures and a lack of attention to possible problems and faulty parts.