- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 4, 2003

Floral bouquets and mementos are continuing to be placed at the Johnson Space Center in Houston and the National Air and Space Museum in Washington as mourning for the seven astronauts who died in the Columbia disaster continues. It's appropriate that time be taken to mourn, and also to thoroughly examine what went wrong. Those flaws must be found and corrected. However, that mourning and those investigations must not keep NASA from fulfilling its primary mission of space exploration. In his Saturday address announcing the loss of the Columbia and its crew, President Bush said, "The cause in which they died will continue … Our journey into space will go on."
Yet, how should that voyage continue? NASA appears to be at a crossroads. Its manned fleet has been sadly reduced, and few expect another shuttle, much less another fleet, to be built. In November, NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe put forward a plan for NASA to develop a fleet of Orbital Space Planes to replace the shuttle as the primary vehicle to transport crews to and from the International Space Station (ISS). However, there's a difference between a presence in space and the exploration of space. The ISS has become a part of the former far more than the latter a place for important and sometimes even edge-of-tomorrow research but not where the future of manned space exploration lies. Perhaps even worse, it has failed to capture the public imagination in the same way that the moon missions did. In some ways, it has become more of an impediment to space exploration than a platform from which to launch.
More than a decade ago, on the 20th anniversary of the Apollo moon landing, then-President George H.W. Bush proposed that the nation commit itself to establishing a manned base on the Moon, followed by a mission to Mars. However, his request was not greeted with much enthusiasm critics were quick to offer budgetary objections, and his proposals quickly lost inertia. Yet, manned flight must continue, and NASA now desperately needs a clearly articulated vision to which the nation can dedicate itself.
Beyond maintenance (and possibly even completion) of the ISS, that vision seems to come down to two choices either a direct flight to Mars, or establishment of a moon base followed by a Mars mission. While neither would be cheap, each has advantages and disadvantages.
The National Space Society has argued that the NASA should first return to the moon to set up a research facility and an industrial base. "The moon can serve as a proving ground for a wide range of space operations and processes, including developments towards 'living off the land' (self-sufficiency) for human outposts," it noted in a statement. Thanks to the Apollo program, NASA already has a deep experiential base from which to draw. Establishment of a moon base also would allow for the development of the space infrastructure (ranging from heavy-lift rockets to habitats) necessary for further exploration of the solar system. Also, the moon is much closer than Mars, so going there would be cheaper.
However, as Robert Zubrin, founder of the Mars Society and author of "Entering Space: Creating a Spacefaring Civilization," pointed out, "Mars is hundreds of times farther away than the moon, but it offers a much greater prize." He elaborated in an interview, pointing out that, while the moon has always been a dead world, Mars once had liquid water on its surface (and still may below the surface), so it may still have life. He also expressed the fear that mankind might get 'stuck' on the moon, just as has happened, at least to a degree, with the ISS, saying: "If JFK had called for a space station as way to get to moon, then we would not have gone to the moon." Moreover, Mr. Zubrin argued that a Mars mission had a greater capacity to inspire, asking rhetorically, "How are you going to excite children with the challenge of reproducing what their grandparents have done?"
The exigencies of the moment (ranging from the ongoing crash investigation to the looming war in Iraq) make it an inopportune time to settle the matter of mankind's next step into space. However, this weekend's tragedy has also made the discussion necessary.
One year from now, after the flowers of Columbia's memorials have withered but before hope has faded, it would be appropriate for President Bush, in his 2004 State of the Union, to offer his administration's vision for the future of manned space flight and his plan for fulfilling it. One year to debate, to decide and then to dictate how the nation's manned voyage into space will continue. There could be no finer tribute to the crew of Columbia.



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