It's crazy and it might have gone on forever had it not been for the Columbia tragedy. Columbia made painfully clear what some of us have been saying for years: It is not only pointless to continue orbiting endlessly around the earth; it is ridiculously expensive and indefensibly risky.
The president's proposal is a reasonable, measured reconfiguration of the manned space program. True, he could not go all the way. Binding agreements with other countries made it impossible for him to scrap the space station -- a financial sinkhole whose only purpose is its own existence. But he is for phasing it down, and for retiring the shuttle within six years.
That frees up huge amounts of NASA money to do what is useful and exciting: going to other worlds. For this generation, the only alternative to wandering about in low earth orbit -- other than the Luddite alternative of giving up manned flight completely -- is to return to the moon. And this time, stay there.
Establishing the first human habitation on a celestial body would not just allow for extraordinarily interesting science (from geology to astronomy) and be the locus for extraterrestrial manufacture. It would be -- those without an ounce of romance in their souls are advised to skip the rest of this sentence -- the most glorious human adventure since the Age of Exploration five centuries ago.
As for Mars, there is nothing Buck Rogers in the president's proposal. It will take decades to work out how to get there safely. There is no Apollo crash program. There is simply an annual 5 percent increase in the NASA budget -- which itself is now less than 1 percent of the whole federal budget.
Those who want to divert even these paltry sums to domestic spending would undoubtedly have objected to Magellan's costly plans, too. Look. We can stay on Earth. We can keep tumbling about in orbiting Tinkertoys. Or we can walk the moon again and prepare for Mars. I can't imagine an easier choice.
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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