- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 5, 2003

Mars is slowly moving away from its closest approach to Earth in millennia. However, humans might be moving closer to it (and other potential targets in space) soon, as a result of the debate that is currently taking place on the future of manned space flight.

Within the last month, the House Science Committee and the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee have both held hearings on the future of manned space flight. A policy group in the White House has also been reviewing options. Those White House policy meetings have included NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and several others.

On Oct. 21, Vice President Dick Cheney and a few members of the White House policy group (including Mr. O’Keefe) traveled to Capitol Hill to meet with members of Congress and staff. They had one meeting with Majority Leader Tom DeLay and several members of the House Science Committee and another meeting with Sens. Bill Nelson, Sam Brownback, John Breaux, John McCain, Fritz Hollings.

That was the first formal meeting between the executive and the legislature on the subject, and it should serve as a touchstone for additional discussions. While congressional staffers have been in contact with their counterparts in the administration, further conversations will help shape the consensus necessary for the next steps.

For maximum results in space, the administration must continue to consult and cooperate with members of Congress. Congressional support will be required for the sustained increases in funding that may be necessary for NASA to permanently leave low Earth orbit. (Manhattan Project-size plans would be fiscally irresponsible, but Congress should make allowances for some expansions in funding.)

At a roundtable with reporters last week, Mr. O’Keefe said that the interagency process of framing up the options is not yet complete. He said that although there is a great deal of passion about the issue, no one has determined a single direction.

That decision must be made by the president. We urge him to announce his plans for the future of manned space flight no later than the State of the Union, so that congressional space enthusiasts have sufficient time to marshal the sustained support necessary for the new initiative to succeed.

As it once led mankind to the moon, America can lead there again, and beyond. The will and ingenuity are already there. All that is now needed is direction from the president coupled to support from Congress.

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