President George W. Bush's Kennedyesque vision to colonize the moon as a launching site for manned space travel to Mars smacks more of election-year politics than reality.
The president's proposal, coming on the heels of the magnificent pictures being sent back from Mars by the unmanned rover mission, is sure to stir the patriotic juices of Americans excited by space exploration - and that includes nearly all of us.
But most of us will also conclude this is simply not a sensible time to embark on an ambitious, costly space program. At first, Bush was only going to propose another manned mission to the moon, but he was told that was of dubious scientific value; besides, we'd been there and done that.
So he decided to step it up a notch and go for Mars.
He says he can get the project under way with $1 billion over five years with money found by re-allocating some of NASA's 2004 budget of $15.5 billion. It sounds too good, and too easy, to be true. The long-term plan calls for sending robots to the moon by 2008, and astronauts to build the lunar base by 2020 and a Mars landing sometime after 2030.
Overambitious at best. Bush's father put forth a less ambitious program 15 years ago. He would have landed astronauts on Mars without first establishing a moon base. The mission's anticipated cost then of about $500 billion understandably turned Congress off to the idea.
Imagine how much more the price tag would be today, with the lunar staging area. The cost wouldn't just be staggering, it would be totally out of reach, especially in this era of anti-terrorist warfare, expensive homeland security measures and soaring deficits.
It's simply unrealistic to take on a huge new manned space exploration program at this time. NASA should stick to doing what's possible and what yields the best scientific results.
For now, that would mean completing the manned missions already on the space agency's plate - winding up the shuttle missions and completing obligations to the International Space Station.
There will someday come a time when it will make sense to plan for manned space flights to Mars, but that time has not come yet.
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