Is this the time to go back to the moon and on to Mars?

More than 40 years ago, in the early years of the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union, President John F. Kennedy pledged to put men on the moon by 1970 and on Mars by 1986. NASA beat the deadline for the lunar landing, but a trip to Mars never got off the ground.
Fifteen years ago, President Bush the elder suggested that the United States should send astronauts back to the moon and should then progress toward Mars. But that effort was overwhelmed by the projected price tag, $400 billion to $500 billion.
Now, President Bush the younger, is prepared to announce a new U.S. commitment to space -- establishing a permanent colony on the moon, which would be preparatory for an expedition to Mars.
Space pays dividends
We have consistently supported the U.S. space program. We are convinced that the technological benefits accrued from decades of exploration have paid incalculable dividends. High-tech and low-tech industries and medical care have made enormous strides thanks to things that were learned and products that were developed in the space program.
But we're going to have to hear some very specific descriptions of the benefits that are anticipated from establishing a colony on the moon and sending astronauts to Mars before we climb aboard.
It is true that national interest in space has been renewed by the recent success of Spirit, the combined lander and rover that landed safely on Mars and has been sending back extraordinary photographs. But that is not enough to justify talk of going to Mars. And we have to wonder what sparked the sudden interest in space travel by President Bush, who during his years as governor of Texas was so uninterested in space that he never bothered to visit the Johnson Space Center.
Perhaps if the nation were not facing a $500 billion budget deficit this year, and trillions of cumulative deficits over the next decade, it would be easier to get enthused about a trip to Mars.
Besides that, the international space station is still a work in progress, the U.S. vehicle designed to service the space station, the shuttle, has been grounded since the loss of the Columbia nearly a year ago, and there are important robotic exploration projects already in the works and on the drawing boards.
More than an unveiling
While sending American men and women to places where no one has gone before is an exciting prospect, the president is going to have to make a compelling case for this effort when he unveils his plans Wednesday. We tend to forget the enormity of the national effort that sent our astronauts on the three-day trip to the moon. It is difficult to imagine what's involved in sending a crew on a six-month journey to Mars.
How will the nation meet its commitments to the space station and the other projects while adding a lunar station and a Mars trip to the agenda? Does President Bush see this as the first step in a space race with China? Is that a race we want or need to enter?
The president is going to have to answer a lot of questions early on if the American people are to believe that this new direction in space exploration is necessary, doable and -- dare we say it -- something more than an election year gimmick.
In his first three years in office, President Bush's greatest weakness has been his ability to tell the American people that they can have it all -- lower taxes, expanded Medicare, social programs consistent with a compassionate conservative philosophy, homeland security and a war against terrorism. And now, trips to the moon and Mars.

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