- The Washington Times - Friday, January 9, 2004

It won’t be the first step, and it may not be the largest. But the Bush administration’s announced decision to send Americans back to the moon and then to Mars marks a welcome step.

Mr. Bush is expected to announce the details of the plan in a speech next week. The first step is likely to be development of technologies and equipment needed for the establishment of a permanent base on the moon, such as heavy-lifting rockets and new landing vehicles. Lessons learned from the lunar outpost would be applied to a manned Mars mission, which would take flight around 2020. As a consequence of that new exploratory focus, the shuttle fleet would be retired and America’s role in the International Space Station would be phased out.

The danger with such an extended timeline is that it might never make it off the ground. In 1989, Mr. Bush’s father made a similar commitment — a return to the moon followed by a mission to Mars. However, Congress refused to allocate funds for the estimated $400 billion project. This effort could be even more costly and deficits are already great.

For the necessary shift in space policy to take effect, Mr. Bush will have to lay out more than a specific goal. At some point, timelines and deadlines will also have to be established. In addition, budgetary concerns will require the administration to consult regularly with Congress.

Many will see Mr. Bush’s decision as an election-year effort to shore up domestic support. That context cannot be ignored, but other concerns are at least as salient. The reduced shuttle fleet is aging, and potential replacements have not gone beyond preliminary planning stages. The manned space program has been moribund for some time, and China has the demonstrated ability to put individuals in orbit and the declared intention of sending them to the moon.

While the costs of going to the moon (and beyond) are great, the potential benefits are even greater. In addition to serving as a testing ground for Mars-bound equipment, a lunar base would also be an important scientific laboratory. At some point, mining and manufacturing facilities might even be established.

Yet again breaking the bonds of low-earth orbit would fulfill an even more important purpose, reviving the drive to explore and discover — what Mr. Bush called the “desire written on the human heart.” Since the frontier closed over a century ago, Americans have searched for ways to manifest those aspirations, ingrained as they are in the national character.

After many falterings and a few disasters, America again has the opportunity to lead the way into space. Mr. Bush is launching the nation on a critical endeavor. Legislators should listen and be prepared to follow his lead.

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