President Obama isn't exactly howling for an existing government goal to land Americans back on the moon by 2020. Instead, he has set up a 10-member panel of space experts to advise him by September if human exploration beyond Earth's orbit is worth the money from a federal budget mired in red ink.
President Bush laid out plans in 2004 for the United States to build a lunar base that could tap the moon's resources and create a launching pad for a mission to Mars, taking advantage of the moon's weak gravity. Congress has twice endorsed the project.
And other nations, especially China, Japan, and Russia, are also eagerly working on their own moon projects. This cold-war-style competition is one reason the US is trying for a more substantial venture to the moon than the Apollo landings that began 40 years ago this month.
No country has sent a human beyond Earth's low orbit since 1972.
Mr. Obama endorsed the 2020 lunar goal during the campaign, perhaps to win Florida and Texas where space jobs are plentiful. But a recent move in Congress for budget delay for the space agency and now a White House rethink of spaceflight have advocates wondering if Obama will be one of those presidents whose vision for humanity is largely Earth-bound.
Obama could delay or cancel the moon plan with the excuse that space science, using probes such as the Mars surface robots, is a higher priority than human exploration. But pitting these two purposes of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration against each other is an old budget game that Obama should avoid. And NASA, with its long-term projects, needs funding stability.
What's required is patience for the results of two lunar probes that were launched in June as part of this grand plan of a lunar base for a Mars landing. One probe is currently mapping the surface for sites that would allow human habitation. The other will test for water in October by hitting a crater at the southern pole. The crash will create a six-mile-high plume that will be analyzed for frozen water. (The last US lunar probe was in 1999.)
If water does exist, it would help sustain the first off-world human colony. And the oxygen and hydrogen extracted from the water could provide fuel for rockets to Mars.
With facts like that on the lunar ground, Obama shouldn't hesitate.