Charles Krauthammer

WASHINGTON -- Most Americans had long since stopped paying attention to manned space flight. The shuttle? So what (except during some stunt like the John Glenn flight)? The moon? Been there, done that.

Four years ago, I wrote an article (``On to Mars,'' The Weekly Standard, Jan. 31, 2000) advocating phasing out the space shuttle, abandoning the space station, establishing a moon base, and then eventually going on to Mars. It was greeted with yawns by those who noticed it at all.

Even my friends excused my fondness for the moon as the kind of eccentricity one expects from a guy who has an interest in prime numbers and once drove to New York to see a chess match.

Well, things have gotten worse. This week, when the president of the United States proposed to phase out the space shuttle, phase down the space station, establish a moon base, and then eventually go on to Mars, he was met not with yawns, but with ridicule.

``He wants to build like a space station on the moon, and then from the moon, he wants to launch people to Mars,'' said a positively gleeful David Letterman. ``You know what this means, ladies and gentlemen? He's been drinking again.''

The Washington Post Style section ran a clever spoof that began: ``The Bush administration wants to send some of us to the moon ... unless congressional ridicule becomes too much to bear.'' And Dennis Kucinich, whose usual specialty is unintended humor, got the laugh of the Jan. 11 Iowa debate when he suggested Bush was going to the moon and Mars to find weapons of mass destruction.

Part of the reason for the unfriendly reception was the way the Bush proposal was rolled out. It was pre-spun as a great new goal to unify the nation -- a ``Kennedy moment'' to kick off an election year.

This was as clumsy as President Bush 41 saying ``Message: I care'' or Howard Dean discovering Jesus as he heads south. If you are going to do something blatantly political, don't telegraph it.

This presentation was particularly stupid because I believe this plan would have been proposed exactly as is, with or without an election year, with or without the phony Kennedy overlay.

In fact, there is not an ounce of political advantage in this proposal. An AP poll found that a majority of Americans would rather spend money on domestic needs.

As for the Kennedy stuff, the Bush proposal has less to do with a vision of man's destiny than with a totally dysfunctional government agency. NASA gave us the glory of Apollo, then spent the next three decades twirling around in space in low earth orbit studying zero-G nausea.

Charles Krauthammer

Charles Krauthammer is a 1987 Pulitzer Prize winner, 1984 National Magazine Award winner, and a columnist for The Washington Post since 1985.

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