CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- On the centennial of the world's first flight, high-speed travel seems to be at an all-time low.
The Columbia is gone. So is the Concorde. The remaining space shuttles are grounded. The space station is stalled.
Yet hope is on the horizon as President Bush considers what might put the nation on a new course of space exploration. After three decades of sticking close to the home planet, astronauts may be headed back to the moon. The prize, this time around, may also include Mars.
The destruction of Columbia nearly one year ago forced the dreamy subject of real outer space sojourns from the back halls and labs of NASA, and from the bailiwick of starry-eyed mavericks, to Capitol Hill and the White House.
That alone gives believers reason for optimism, space travelers included.
Astronaut Edward Lu is encouraged by the examination of "overall goals of the space program. I think you need that organizing, big-picture view of where the program itself is heading."
If Lu was in charge, "I would put us on a course toward going back to the moon, eventually going to Mars, going out to asteroids."
He would treat the international space station, his home for six months this past year, as a testbed for learning the things needed to accomplish those lofty objectives.
His replacement aboard the space station, Michael Foale, another astrophysicist-astronaut, says the challenge is not building a Mars ship, a 10-year endeavor.
"Unfortunately, making your dreams and your wishes political reality is much, much more tricky," says Foale, who's living on the space station until spring.
After watching a full moon and the movie "2001: A Space Odyssey" from orbit, Foale says he's fired up about the possibility of a lunar base. He's also energized by NASA's Project Prometheus, a research effort into nuclear-powered rockets and generators that could dramatically speed up space travel.
"The space station is a good place to start from, but it certainly needs to be the stepping stone to somewhere else," Foale said wistfully last week.
Bush administration officials are sidestepping questions about whether the president will announce a grand, new space plan anytime soon. An interagency task force led by Vice President Dick Cheney has been considering options since summer.
For weeks, many insiders have speculated that Bush might set forth goals on this week's 100th anniversary of the Wright brothers' famed flight on Dec. 17, 1903. Another possibility is his State of the Union address in late January, painfully close to the anniversaries of both the Challenger and Columbia tragedies.
NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe and his deputies will be at Kitty Hawk on Wednesday to mark the centennial. The space agency had always planned to take part in the festivities given its own achievements of the past century - most notably landing 12 men on the moon and sending probes to every planet in the solar system save Pluto.
John Glenn will be at Kitty Hawk, too.
The first American to orbit the Earth says that before deciding to race off to the moon or Mars, the nation needs to complete the international space station and provide the taxi service to accommodate a full crew of six or seven. The station currently houses two.
At the same time, Glenn says, NASA could be laying out a long-term plan, setting a loose timetable and investing in the engineering challenges of sending people to Mars. The only sensible reason for going to the moon first, he says, would be to test the technology for a Mars trip.
Alex Roland, a former NASA historian who now teaches at Duke University, doesn't expect much in the way of a fresh, long-range space vision from President Bush - or NASA.
"Space is a motherhood issue: Everybody's in favor of it; nobody wants to do anything that will sort of critically disrupt the status quo," Roland says.
For NASA planetary scientist Everett Gibson - who has been scrutinizing moon rocks ever since the Apollo astronauts brought them back - any space policy is better than no policy as has been the case for sometime.
"The development of a national commitment or a national space policy is something that is needed in this country, and I'm speaking now as a citizen, not as a government employee," Gibson says. Youngsters need to be inspired and the dreams of exploration kept alive "whether that's the moon or to Mars or exactly where."
For Bush to propose a return to the moon 100 years after Orville and Wilbur Wright took the first-ever powered flights leaves some space buffs yearning for more, however.
Been there, done that long, long ago.
"Now anyone who's really studied this knows that we are much better prepared today to send humans to Mars than we were to send men to the moon in '61," says Robert Zubrin, the zealous president of the Mars Society.
"If we are, in fact, the inheritors of the Wrights, and Lewis and Clark, that's what we should do and I would submit, we cannot afford not to be inheritors. We cannot afford to become less than the people who have gotten us to where we are."
Zubrin says late January would be an ideal time for Bush to pitch a human expedition to Mars. By the time of the State of the Union, both of NASA's Mars rovers should have reached the Red Planet, trailing a European Mars lander by just days.
Talk about a well-received Mars invasion.
"Look, we had humans on the moon six times. We have 700 pounds of lunar rocks sitting at Johnson Space Center that nobody even bothers to look at," Zubrin says in a rapid-fire voice, getting more excited as he gets warmed up.
"The moon is a rock; Mars is a world with a complex history. So Mars is the Rosetta stone for letting us know about the prevalence and diversity of life in the universe."
It's also the key test "that's going to determine whether we can ever become a multiplanet species," a challenge that's been staring NASA in the face since 1969, he said.
Apollo 13 astronaut Fred Haise agrees that the long-term goal of the space program should be "to plant the human race elsewhere."
"We need to use our God-given talent, which we uniquely were given," Haise says. "There's no other creature I know of that ever will build a starship. Dolphins are smart, but I don't think they're going to build a starship."
Even the head of NASA's space science office acknowledges that Mars may well hold the key to some of humanity's deepest questions. But he urges a steppingstone approach with robots leading the way.
"When John F. Kennedy decided we were going to go to the moon in the early '60s, NASA didn't just go off and build the capsules, Gemini and Apollo," says Edward Weiler.
He rattles off the spacecraft that preceded the moonmen: Rangers. Surveyors. Lunar Orbiters.
The Mars program is similar, Weiler said. "Every single mission we have on our Mars program is paving the way for humans."
If the ultimate goal is to search for life on Mars, any mission there - a tremendous expense - should be aimed at the best spot to search for life, he said. The Red Planet is slightly more than half the size of Earth.
No one, least of all members of Congress, knows how NASA would pay for lunar camps or Mars expeditions. The last time a president pushed such ambitious ideas - the first President Bush on the 20th anniversary of the first manned moon landing - the estimated price tag was $400 billion to $500 billion.
"We can't have another one of these big glorious programs that we take lots of credit for but put no money behind," says former astronaut Glenn.
He says he'd be skeptical of any program that just sets a date with no budget, something amounting to a false promise.
NASA's paper trail is littered with other expensive drawing-board flops: a national aerospace plane that designers as little as a decade ago expected to be ferrying average folks into space by now; commercial hypersonic craft hyped as being able to fly passengers from New York to Tokyo in two hours flat, at five times the speed of sound.
The supersonic Concorde got passengers between Europe and New York in just over three hours at twice the speed of sound for three decades. But that, too, is gone. The last commercial trans-Atlantic flight was in October, a casualty of brutally high costs.
The ongoing war against terrorism and the burgeoning deficit certainly complicate matters for any new NASA venture.
Space enthusiasts, however, point out that Vietnam did not stop Apollo, nor did the Apollo 1 fire that killed three astronauts on the launch pad.
"Of course, the Columbia is what posed this whole issue, right?" asks Zubrin. He believes if the nation is willing to risk human life for space exploration, "we ought to be striving for the goals that are worthy of those risks" - not repeated jaunts in low-Earth orbit.
On the Net:
First Flight Centennial Foundation:
Mars Society: www.marssociety.org