- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 14, 2004

The journey outward begins with an instinct, a desire. A longing to look beyond the horizon. A fingertip extended to the unknown. A resolve to reach into the starry sky. Yesterday, President Bush gave that dream definition and direction with a bold proposal for “a new foothold on the moon … and new journeys to the world beyond our own.” It is a courageous vision and a worthy set of goals that Congress should give full consideration.

Many objections have been raised to the costs of the president’s proposals. Budget hawks argue that even the small increases in NASA’s budget requested by the president are too much, considering this year’s projected $500 billion deficit and the great outlays necessitated by other national priorities. More liberal-minded critics argue that the money should instead be spent on other projects, such as an effort to achieve national energy independence.

Yet, decisions must be made about man’s future in space. The remaining shuttles are aging. If Mr. Bush had not decided to retire the space shuttles by 2010, they would have had to go through the difficult and costly process of flight re-certification. While the International Space Station (ISS) is useful for scientific research, it will never be an exploratory platform.

Three different roads are possible, but only one leads to the stars. NASA could retreat from space, perhaps continuing to send unmanned probes into the solar system but reducing resources spent on manned exploration. It could continue the status quo, re-certifying the shuttles and continuing to do experiments on the ISS. Or, NASA could once again reach outward.

Mr. Bush chose boldly and wisely. While his father’s bid to send men to Mars was killed by its estimated $400 billion price tag, NASA has accomplished much with little more than the initial outlays requested by Mr. Bush yesterday. When adjusted for inflation, NASA spent about $17 billion annually from 1961 to 1973. Mr. Bush’s determination to develop and test a new Crew Exploration Vehicle by 2008 and return to the moon by 2020 marks a welcome return to the Apollo era of specific direction and explicit deadlines. In addition, all outlays for the new plan are likely to receive scrutiny by NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe, a former deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget.

Despite its costs, moving beyond low-earth orbit will have enormous benefits. Even the sharpest critics of the space program acknowledge that it has been the source of thousands of technical spinoffs and innumerable scientific discoveries. Space is the ultimate high ground for national defense; the moon and Mars are potential refuges for disasters on Earth.

But there are even better reasons to follow Mr. Bush’s lead. Americans are explorers and settlers by nature. They are heirs to the first footsteps of the Pilgrims at Plymouth; of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark into Louisiana Territory; of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin onto the moon. Congressional critics may find many flaws with the president’s plan. But they must also consider the alternative of rejecting America’s bold inheritance, of turning inward, of giving up the dream of exploration.

A year ago, we urged Mr. Bush to put forward a vision of the future of manned space flight and a plan for fulfilling it as the most fitting memorial to the Columbia and her crew. Yesterday, Mr. Bush proclaimed, “It’s time for America to take the next step [in space exploration].” Congress must now put its foot forward.

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