WASHINGTON — The nation's space program needs the type of vision from a U.S. president that John F. Kennedy supplied in the race to the moon, the inventor of the first private spaceship said Thursday.
Burt Rutan said NASA has failed to capture the public's imagination and must refocus its efforts on human spaceflight.
Rutan designed SpaceShipOne, which rocketed into space twice in five days, a feat considered the first steppingstone en route to private spaceflight.
In an appearance at the National Press Club, Rutan praised new NASA Administrator Michael Griffin as the right person to transform the agency, while questioning whether Griffin will be allowed to do so.
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NASA has 435 people on its board of directors, all with their own agendas, Rutan said of Congress.
During his re-election campaign last year, President Bush called for NASA to return manned spacecraft to the moon and eventually to send a manned spacecraft to Mars.
Rutan said the space program has paid a price for pulling back from moon exploration, and he pointed to the cost in lives in the shuttle program as a sign that drastic change is needed, with the first 22 years of space flight having been a lot safer than the last 22.
"We have regressed," Rutan declared. "Do you know of any technology that gets over the decades more dangerous?"
The human spaceflight program is still trying to recover from the Columbia accident of Feb. 1, 2003, which killed seven astronauts. The shuttle Discovery is currently due for launch on the first post-Columbia mission in mid- to late July.
Rutan said that right now, the nation's space program doesn't even "have the courage" to go repair the orbiting Hubble Space Telescope. The new NASA chief appears to be in the process of reversing that decision, recently ordering work to begin for one last shuttle servicing mission.
A week ago, Griffin made an impassioned case for speeding up development of a new spacecraft so the United States will not lose access to space when the shuttle is retired in 2010.
The current plan, which Griffin inherited when he took over NASA last month, calls for the new vehicle to carry a crew into orbit by 2014 and be capable of traveling to the moon and Mars, with modifications, in the years beyond.
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