PASADENA, Calif. (AP) - With Pathfinder sending tantalizing images of Mars back to Earth, some Americans are getting excited about the possibility of a manned mission to the Red Planet. The question remains: At what cost?
And will taxpayers be willing to pay it?
After all, in 1989, when President Bush called for NASA to create a moon outpost and send astronauts to Mars, the space agency came back with a $450 billion plan. Congress never provided a dime. President Clinton scaled back in favor of cheaper robotic missions, leaving out human travel to Mars.
However, now that the $266 million Pathfinder is proving that "faster, cheaper, better" missions are doable, some experts say affordable human travel to Mars could be achieved.
During a visit to the Pathfinder team, NASA chief Daniel Goldin said he asked scientists to devise a man-on-Mars proposal for "something less than $20 billion to $25 billion." That's about the cost of 10 B-2 stealth bombers.
Some taxpayers are ready to start the countdown.
"It's an inevitable part of humanity's search for knowledge," said Scarlett Hibner, 57. "It's like putting a man into space as soon as we could, putting a man on the moon as soon as we could."
Accountant Beverly Diehl, 36, said every dime spent on space projects has paid off at home: "People think it's money down a rat hole but it's not."
But Sharon Velasquez, a 50-year-old office manager, said: "I'm all for NASA, but when it gets to be that kind of money, absolutely not. I think we need to take a little money and put it in our own country to take care of our people who need help."
And Ralph DeGennaro, executive director of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a watchdog group, said: "Pathfinder should get the cheap government award, but sending humans to Mars is truly nutty."
That raises another question: To what end should we do this?
The answer to that is up in the air, according to Goldin, who said the United States needs to "figure out what are the scientific payouts and work with other countries so Americans don't have to pick up the entire bill."
In its 10-year proposal to fly two unmanned spacecraft to Mars every 26 months, NASA wants to bring Martian rocks home in 2005. It could dispatch humans no sooner than 2011 to the planet 119 million miles away.
NASA's space science and human travel programs are already collaborating on a 2001 mission in which an unmanned lander would test ways to create fuel on Mars, evaluate radiation dangers and assess the corrosiveness of the soil.
But firing the public's imagination the way President Kennedy did with his 1961 promise to put a man to the moon may be beyond NASA's ability nowadays.
Interest in space exploration has waned for several reasons. Among them, Congress got frustrated by NASA's underestimated costs and overpromised results, and such setbacks as the Challenger explosion and the Hubble telescope's blurry vision.
Wesley Huntress Jr., NASA's space science chief, said that for the United States to put humans on Mars, the planet has to remain interesting to the public.
"If we were to bring back a rock in 2005 that clearly shows evidence of ancient life on the planet or if we were to find evidence of life on Mars, that would be great impetus for a human program," he said.
A manned mission must have a compelling scientific or economic rationale, said Alan Ladwig, NASA's associate administrator for policy and plans. After all, he said, "In a post-Cold War era, you don't have the Russians to beat anymore."
As even Walter Cronkite, who covered the space program's early days for CBS, once put it: "The pioneering days of space are simply over. Even a Mars landing doesn't have nearly the appeal that a moon landing had."