WASHINGTON -- You might not have noticed, but we broke another space record last month when astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria logged 67 hours of spacewalking. If you consider that the equivalent of the Guinness record for pogo-stick bouncing (23.11 miles in 12 hours and 27 minutes) -- amazing but pointless -- I agree with you. There's nothing quite as beautiful as the space station and the shuttle that services it, and nothing quite as useless.
Now, that can be said of many things: a balance-beam dismount, a Shakespeare sonnet, a chess problem by Nabokov. But none of these is financed by taxpayers and none makes a claim to utility. They are there for reasons of aesthetics, and perhaps amusement.
You cannot justify a $17 billion NASA budget or $6 billion spent on manned exploration on such grounds. There has to be more than that, and the space shuttle never was. It will be remembered as one of the most elegant, most misbegotten detours in the history of technology. It was our Spruce Goose, Howard Hughes' gigantic, eight-engine plane that flew only once.
But the Spruce Goose didn't cost $4 billion in taxpayer money to operate. Which is why the coming retirement of the shuttle is so welcome. Even more welcome was the Bush administration's decision to redirect the entire manned space effort to establishing a moon base.
Not until about 2020, mind you, half a century since we first reached the moon. Future generations will have a hard time understanding the hiatus. But for two sets of critics -- the Luddite left and the science purists -- 50 years is not nearly long enough. They would not build a moon base at all.
The Luddites have long opposed manned exploration as a waste of resources when, as the mantra goes, we have so many problems here on earth.
I find this objection incomprehensible. When will we stop having problems here on earth? In a fallen world of endless troubles, that does not stop us from allocating resources to endeavors we find beautiful, exciting and elevating -- opera, alpine skiing, feature films -- yet solve no social problems.
Moreover, the moon base is not pointless. The shuttles were on an endless trip to the nowhere of low Earth orbit. The moon is a destination. The idea this time is not to go plant a flag, take a golf shot and leave, but to stay and form a real self-sustaining, extraterrestrial human colony.
Sure, Mars would be better. It holds open the possibility of life and might even have water on its surface today. But the best should not be the enemy of the good. Mars is simply too far, too dangerous, too difficult, too expensive. We won't go there for a hundred years.
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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