01/18/04 — Man on Mars: Is it worth going after whatever is out there?

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Man on Mars: Is it worth going after whatever is out there?

President Bush's concept of accelerating America's space program appears to be meeting with widespread resistance. That contrasts sharply with the reaction to the first proposals, 45 or so years ago, to send Americans to the moon.

Bush proposes that we begin working to return to the moon after our obligations to the International Space Station are completed in 2010. Our fleet of space shuttles will be going out of service about that time, and the president would like to replace them with something called a Crew Exploratory Vehicle. That craft could take people to the space station, then on beyond to the moon.

The moon, under this concept, could ultimately -- years from now -- become a launching point for Mars. Once a station was built there, launching a Mars lander from the moon would be cheaper because the moon has only one-sixth the pull of gravity as the earth.

The objections to the plan are mostly based on money.

Bush is asking for a relatively small amount at first -- $1 billion in new money in the next five years, to go with another $11 billion that NASA would redirect to the effort. In the more distant future, though, the ride to Mars could cost hundreds of billions of dollars.

That money could be well spent right here on earth -- or left in the taxpayers' pockets. So would the space exploration be worth it? Would we find something out there that could benefit human life? Something that would tell us more about the earth and its creation?

We'll never know until we try it.

The idea of going to Mars seems extravagantly futuristic and unreal. Putting man on the moon seemed that way in the 1940s. When President Eisenhower spoke of it in the 1950s, we listened with excitement. When President Kennedy made it a challenge to the country in the early 1960s, NASA accepted it as a challenge that was tough, but one it could fulfill.

It did in 1969, and astronauts went back to the moon several times before we ended the program in 1972.

Why do we lack the excitement and curiosity that we had in the 1950s, '60s and '70s? Mainly, perhaps, because there is no competition. There is no Soviet Union to engage us in a "space race" -- remember that term? -- no one to beat to the punch. There is no one to fear if we lose the race, no fear that the enemy would find ways to use its advantage against us in war.

If we embark on a new space program now, it will be just for the sake of discovery. Do we still have enough of the pioneer spirit to launch this adventure? Are our needs at home just too great to divert our money to outer space?

Or would the eventual benefits of space exploration be worth the price?

What price would we pay to begin uncovering more of the secrets of our universe?

Published in Editorials on January 18, 2004 11:40 PM