Houston, we have a goal

After years of drift, simply fixing up shuttles and a space station, NASA this week rolled out that old Apollo magic. It staked a time (2020) and a place (south pole) for a moon base to create the first human habitation off Earth. And that's just the warm-up.

The agency's specific lunar goal, which builds on a 2004 Bush vision to use the moon as a practice step to a Mars settlement, hardly stirred the American public, though, as did John Kennedy's man-on-the-moon speech 45 years ago.

And therein lies this lofty venture's prime obstacle: Keeping up enthusiasm in Congress for space spending, or rather for America's traditional culture of exploration (ignited by Columbus), its striving to find new frontiers (as Lewis and Clark did), and its need to keep breaking material and human barriers (with genius like that of the Wright brothers).

NASA has seen too many space promises evaporate, in part because of one too many disasters and cost overruns, domestic disputes over goals between space engineers and scientists, or fickle political support.

Some even wonder if private aerospace firms are now better primed to be the leading space pioneers. Or whether robotic probes, such as the two, death-defying ones still plying Mars, would be better suited to meet human ambitions to know the planets and stars.

Finding political longevity in Washington for space spending that is as secure as, say, entitlement programs or medical research, has become as difficult for NASA as safely getting humans to Mars and back.

Is there any way the next Congress can bind future lawmakers to keep funding this grand, multidecade space project? To help, NASA has craftily designed its lunar/Mars project to juice up as many political constituencies as possible.

The steadiest supporters are those who want to discover if Mars ever supported life or whether it could become a life raft for humans if Earth becomes uninhabitable (either by asteroid, global warming, nuclear war, or other such cataclysm).

A moon base, besides being a training pad for Mars landings, would also provide a Hubble-like, atmosphereless eye on the stars and more details on the origins of the solar system. For the less curious, the mining of rare minerals, such as helium-3, would create a commercial, K-Street-like space constituency.

For patriots, the project would help regain US competitiveness in technology and revive its dominance in science and engineering education. A US-led presence on the moon might keep it safe for all humanity to use, as Antarctica is now.

For the globally minded, NASA's offer to let other nations participate in the project would build in US obligations to keep funding it, as the International Space Station has done.

Even with such support groups, NASA claims it can do the lunar portion within its annual $16.8 billion budget. Mars is another matter, with no price tag set (wisely).

The spirit of Magellan lies within NASA's dream of traversing these other worlds. The dollars lie elsewhere. Matching dollars to dreams will require keeping that spirit of exploration alive among as many Americans as possible.

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