Mars, the Morning After

GEORGE Bush felt on the 20th anniversary of the moonwalk he had to support a bold space program - a future moon base and manned Mars mission. But in the cold light of morning some hard questions have to be asked not only about how focused, but how realistic, such plans are. For the American taxpayer to fork out the billions required to develop the technology to go to Mars, more than brave but vague slogans about man's exploratory spirit are needed.

The immediate needs of the US space program are less intoxicating than an artist's rendering of a lunar colony. They include research and development of earth satellites that can better monitor ongoing problems such as the carbon dioxide buildup contributing to the greenhouse effect.

They include the Hubble telescope, soon to be launched. Hubble will transmit the most illuminating photos of the galaxy so far; the project needs more funding.

Unmanned planetary probes are in an infant stage. But with lighter and more complex microchip technology, their promise of specific, wide-ranging exploration - say, of Jupiter's moons - can be achieved at a reasonable expense.

And of course the shuttle program itself must be supported.

These projects already take up most of the $11 billion NASA budget, and they shouldn't be ignored or neglected. They are the basics. The push to build a $20 billion space station - the linchpin in the plan for any further manned exploration of the moon or Mars - should be secondary.

A bargain-basement space station housing eight persons can be built in 15 shuttle trips. (The $20 billion excludes operating costs or glitches). It would answer some initial questions about the feasibility of a five-year Mars journey. Proceed with extreme caution.

The science problems - alloys, fuels, distances - are light years more complex than Apollo. Cost isn't the issue. Intelligent spending is. If Mr. Bush is serious about space, he needs to do better than reheat an old vision.

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