For decades, the concept of travel to the moon and beyond has tapped into that dreamy, know-no-limits side of the American psyche. Just as predictably, when the huge cost is raised, US attitudes come back down to earth. Polls show that public support drops then down to a modest minority.
This is the challenge President Bush faces as he promotes his plan for renewed space exploration: selling the idea to a public that, when reminded, believes the billions of dollars it would cost should be spent elsewhere. The timing of the proposal also raises a political question: Will voters discount the idea as an election-year reach for grandiosity (with a bill that comes due later), or will they perceive this and other recent, bold proposals as welcome signs that Mr. Bush is a leader with vision?
So far, Americans are reacting just as they did in the 1960s, when President Kennedy proposed travel to the moon. And that may be part of the White House's calculation, as Bush lays out a multibillion-dollar plan to establish a permanent base on the moon and a mission to Mars. During the '60s, as the nation faced the costs of the Great Society programs and the Vietnam War, it still managed to fund a space program that put the first man on the moon in 1969.
"If the Democrats are going to come after Bush after his speech and say, 'At a time with record deficits, why are you proposing spending the money?' that will resonate to some degree with the public, no question about it," says Frank Newport, editor in chief of the Gallup poll. "But on the other hand, the psychological lift that comes from the concept will also resonate with the public on the Bush side, so who knows?"
Mr. Newport points to a "split sample" survey Gallup did last month. When half of those polled were asked if they thought sending a man to the moon was a good idea, 53 percent favored it and 45 percent opposed. In the other half of the sample, to whom cost was mentioned, 31 percent favored and 67 percent opposed.
An Ipsos-Public Affairs poll conducted for the Associated Press this week found the public evenly split - 48 percent favoring and the same opposing - on Bush's moon-Mars proposal.
Monitor interviews with people in New York City, Boston, and the Mountain West revealed both excitement and skepticism about the plan. Jonathan Schechter, an economist in Jackson Hole, Wyo., says he was stunned by the president's announcement. "I thought we had given up on thinking about this stuff," he says. He adds that when he was a boy growing up in suburban Los Angeles, not far from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, his father was a naval aviator in flight school with astronaut Neil Armstrong, who became a good friend and personal icon.
"I'm a complete junkie when it comes to space exploration," Mr. Schechter says. "In fact, my enthusiasm for this initiative almost overshadows the loathing I feel for this administration over its policies in Iraq and its handling of domestic issues, including the environment."
Schechter admits that he is suspicious of the Bush administration's motives. But even with a potentially exorbitant price tag, he believes it is worth the dividends it will bring in enhancing human knowledge.
Michael Nelson, a network administrator in New York City, has a different take: "I think doing manned flights at this time is ridiculously expensive."
With the technology and robotics we have now, says Mr. Nelson, there is no good reason to consider manned exploration right now. "It's nothing Bush could implement during his presidency anyway," he says. "They're trying to make him sound like a statesman, make him look Kennedyesque." Unmanned space travel makes sense, says Nelson, because scientists and engineers are developing the technology anyway.
Salesman Stewart Hanegan from Boston's Dorchester section hews toward the positive in his assessment: "I think it's important to look ahead, to think about the future." Mr. Hanegan says he was a Democrat, but likes Bush, "because he's going out there and doing things, making things happen.... There's something about searching space that broadens our spirits."
School custodian John Perez from Springfield, Mass., questioned where the money for an expanded space program would come from. "We need more resources here," says Mr. Perez. "We've already got $80 billion going to Iraq; he's breaking the bank again."
Back in the West, John DeHaas, a professor emeritus in the school of architecture at Montana State University, applauds the initiative. He thinks Americans need to relearn how to dream big, and that citizens young and old have become lackadaisical. "I know it's going to be expensive, but what the heck, to do anything worthwhile is expensive," he says. "I may never see a man on Mars in my lifetime, but it's coming."
But Kristi Crawford, a schoolteacher in Bozeman, Mont., isn't so sure such talk is going to captivate her students as much as it seems to inspire their parents. The new blueprint for space caught her by surprise, and she believes it will take time to really sink in with young people. For one, she believes advances in digital technology and animation have left kids more desensitized to the drama and wonders of space.
"Many of my kids are not impressed because they believe that by landing the rovers on Mars and sending astronauts back to the moon, it's not that exciting. In their minds, we've already done that."
• Noel C. Paul in Boston, Adam Parker in New York, and Todd Wilkinson in Montana contributed to this report.