Shooting for the stars

Posted: Jan 16, 2004 12:00 AM

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.

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.

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