Moon or Mars? Space visionaries hopeful of bold new space policy


Friday, December 5th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6


CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) _ After decades of watching astronauts circle Earth, space visionaries finally have reason for optimism: NASA and other agencies are working with the White House on a bold, new course of exploration.

Whether the destination is the moon or Mars _ or whether any plan actually makes liftoff _ remains to be seen. For space buffs, just to get a defined mission would be cause for hope.

``Put it this way: I think we have to continue to move forward and, at least with the discussion that's going on, that's good,'' said Everett Gibson, a NASA scientist who studied moon rocks from the Apollo astronauts and the Mars meteorite that may hold evidence of past life on the red planet.

Gibson's currently involved with the European-built Mars probe that's on its way to a Christmas Day landing. Two NASA rovers are right behind, scheduled to land on Mars in January.

Neither the White House nor NASA will discuss specifics. Nor will they answer the hopes of pro-space optimists who have been buzzing for weeks over whether President Bush may use the 100th anniversary of the Wright brothers' flight on Dec. 17 as the time for a space announcement.

They will only say the interagency effort began in July. ``That work is ongoing and will continue,'' said Glenn Mahone, NASA's chief spokesman.

It was the Columbia tragedy that helped force a discussion of where NASA should venture beyond the space shuttle and international space station. The panel that investigated the Columbia accident called for a clearly defined long-term mission _ a national vision for space that has gone missing for three decades.

Gibson sides with the humans-back-to-the-moon-then-on-to-Mars crowd.

``The moon can be used as a development ground to allow us to better operate on Mars,'' Gibson said this week.

The moon is just three days away while Mars is at least six months away, and the lunar surface therefore could be a safe place to shake out Martian equipment. Observatories also could be built on the moon, and mining camps could be set up to gather helium-3 for conversion into fuel for use back on Earth.

At the same time, NASA should send robots to Mars to gather rocks and dirt, and return the samples to Earth for study, Gibson contends.

Rep. Bart Gordon, D-Tenn., a senior member of the House Science Committee, also favors a human return to the moon and a Dec. 17 pronouncement. He said he made his views known last month to Vice President Dick Cheney, who quietly is heading up a task force on the future of spaceflight. The congressman said Cheney didn't show the administration's hand.

Gordon sees Mars as a drawn-out affair, and ``you can't keep Americans' attention or Congress' appropriation focused on a 20-year goal.'' The moon, on the other hand, ``is an obtainable goal on a reasonable time frame,'' he said Thursday.

Besides, other countries like China have their eyes on the moon, Gordon noted, and ``we don't want to not be there.''

But Robert Zubrin, president of the Mars Society, cringes at the thought of putting the moon first and settling for a robot's exploration of the red planet instead of humans.

``For the president to go to Kitty Hawk and stand in the footsteps of the Wright brothers on the 100th anniversary of their flight and the 200th anniversary of Lewis and Clark's expedition and proclaim humans to the moon in 20 years is farcical,'' Zubrin said.

``Really, how do you inspire the youth of today with a challenge repeating feats their grandparents did?''

Even NASA's astronaut corps is split. Edward Lu, newly returned from the international space station, puts the moon at the forefront of any new exploration. His replacement aboard the outpost, Michael Foale, dreams of Mars.

Zubrin pressed his case before a Senate committee in October. Meanwhile, members of Congress are becoming impatient about the lack of long-term space direction, even as they worry about cost.

The outcome may well be a deliberate steppingstone approach, especially as the war in Iraq drags on.

Bush knows better than anyone what can happen to pie-in-the-sky promises. On the 20th anniversary of the first manned moon landing, his father called for lunar colonies and a Mars expedition. The prohibitively expensive plan went nowhere.

Whatever Bush decides, if anything, and whether he announces it at Kitty Hawk or later, one thing is certain:

It won't be the last word on the subject, Zubrin said, laughing hard.