- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 25, 2003

Many who come to Washington have stars in their eyes. They have a vision for making the bureaucracy better and the Beltway less corrupt — even though they have no idea how to turn on their vacuum cleaners. Yet each person has a different version of the vision, so instead of a thousand points of light, the result is a galaxy of incandescent individuals.

NASA has not been immune to collisions of vision. For some time, the agency’s manned space program has been star-crossed by costly conflicting conceptions of the next step outward.

Those discussions have taken flame since the demise of the shuttle Columbia. Since August, a White House policy group has been debating new visions for manned space flight, and earlier this fall, House and Senate committees held hearings on the same subject.

The Bush administration reportedly hopes to renew exploration of the moon to further scientific research and give NASA a clear goal.

NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe, a member of the administration review group, has steadfastly refused to discuss its possible recommendations. Nonetheless, potential options are pretty well known.

There are three destinations Mr. Bush could aim for. The Planetary Society and the Mars Society are lobbying for an exploratory flight to Mars, followed by the establishment a permanent human settlement. Dry as it is, Mars may have once had running water, out of which bacterial life might have risen. Other mysteries also await, and the planet has long had a hold on the human imagination. For the next several decades, Mars will remain the ultimate destination for human discovery.

However, Mars is also, on average, almost 50 million miles away from Earth. It would take astronauts months to arrive, and they would face the dual dangers of long-term exposure to radiation and losses in bone density that accompany long flights. It would also cost billions. Maintaining political momentum might be problematic, since even if a Mars mission were announced tomorrow, it would not likely launch until after the end of Mr. Bush’s second term.

Instead of taking a great leap to Mars, others, including the National Space Society, have argued man should first take the small step back to the moon, to permanently establish a colony. While not as fecund as Mars (it has changed little in billions of years) and even drier, the moon still has plenty of unsolved mysteries.

A base on the moon could serve as a staging point for more distant missions, and a testing area for the technologies they would require. However, a permanent moon settlement would also be expensive to establish. While lunar industries might develop, their payoff would be decades away.

The greater danger is that a lunar base could become a slightly more distant International Space Station — an expensive orbiting outpost whose agenda is dominated by maintenance instead of exploration.

Another option would be a series of manned missions to Near Earth Objects (NEOs). While NEOs pose no immediate danger, they have caused several mass extinctions on Earth in the past. NEO missions would allow astronauts to discover ways to divert them if it should ever prove necessary, and would also allow the development and testing of equipment needed on longer space voyages. Yet NEO missions have little organizational backing, and their ability to inspire the public is far from certain.

The president’s choice will also be limited by fiscal and political capital. House Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert has said that NASA should not expect major budget increases.

As Mr. O’Keefe acknowledged at a November roundtable with reporters, motivations for space exploration are different than they used to be. Moon missions were an easy sell at the Cold War’s height, simply to show off U.S. might.

However, now that communism has been restricted to Cuba and some parts of San Francisco Bay, that national imperative no longer exists. Instead, the drive must come from something deeper, akin to the “The desire written in the human heart,” Mr. Bush referred to at the Columbia memorial.

At the moment, the administration seems to be leaning towards a return to the moon. That challenge would be both bold and cautious: fiscally feasible, technologically achievable, and politically possible.

Regardless of whether Mr. Bush decides to shoot for the moon or beyond, he must chose among the constellation of conflicting visions. Despite the dangers of choosing a destination that appropriators would reject as too expensive or the public would reject as too unimaginative, the worst mistake Mr. Bush could make would be to allow a resumption of the status quo when the remaining shuttles return to flight.

Mankind belongs in space, and Americans, long the optimists of the frontier, must lead the way. It is long past time for this free people to permanently break the bonds of low-Earth orbit. On that point, even those without stars in their eyes agree.

Charles Rousseaux is an editorial writer for The Washington Times

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