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IN 1961, when President John F. Kennedy challenged America to land a man on the moon by the end of that decade, he had his reasons. But they were mostly political, with exploration of the "new frontier" merely a backdrop. Given the technology at his disposal, he had little cause, except for his faith in American ingenuity, to believe it actually could be done.
And for that, his idea was ridiculed.
But by the time Neil Armstrong stepped upon the lunar surface on July 20, 1969, questions of the late president's sanity had long been replaced by testimonies to his vision.
Little did Kennedy know, or would he live to know, the remarkable timing of the events he had initiated. The result was a major injection of prestige for America just when it was needed, at the close of the tumultuous 1960s.
The moon landing showed that the nation could prove itself apart from atomic bombs or battlefield prowess. Despite being mired in Vietnam, suffering the assassinations of top political and social figures, and fighting among ourselves over the American future, we could indeed put a man on the moon and return him safely to Earth as the president had asked.
Now that is multitasking.
One dividend we continue to reap from reaching the moon is the belief that we can do whatever we set our minds to do. The project proves that, given the proper commitment, we will pursue a worthy goal despite accidents that claim the lives of the boldest and brightest among us.
So now we have President Bush calling on Americans to return to the moon and leap from there with human voyages to Mars.
This comes in the wake of NASA's successful landing of its rover Spirit on the Martian surface--and shortly before the landing of Spirit's twin, Opportunity, on the opposite side of the Red Planet later this month.
It's a giant leap for President Bush to make such a proposal, given his ongoing difficulty with vision in general. Is he looking back to see that Americans need the diversion of space to take their minds off the casualties of war? Or does he simply have the bad habit of jumping into complex situations without heeding the obvious implications?
Let's consider what's going on. The moment Spirit landed on Mars and began returning data, NASA proclaimed, "We're back!" The agency needs some good news, and this is good news.
But Spirit's success hardly justifies the suggestion that all is well at NASA, that the Columbia disaster is old news, and that the agency is moving on to bigger and better things. In fact, the shuttle program isn't back. It's still on the ground. And the only round trips to the International Space Station (remember that?) are being made by the Russians--the so-called space-race losers.
Missions to Mars have had a success rate of about one in three. But suddenly, because we've landed a robot on Mars without smashing it to smithereens, we're going to go to work on sending humans there.
President Kennedy had the advantage of the unknown. The only evidence he had to suggest that a manned moon mission was possible came from the unmanned Soviet missions to the moon in the late 1950s, which were little more than target practice. The dangers of human space travel were assumed but unexperienced. The thought of routine human space travel still belonged to Jules Verne, who wrote "From the Earth to the Moon" in 1865.
Unfortunately for President Bush, we know a lot more now than then. We know well the extreme difficulty and danger of the undertaking he proposes. And whatever the project's cost estimate, go ahead and add a zero for a more accurate figure.
Of course we can do it, if we accept the cost, the risk, and the decades of commitment. But is now really a good time to focus on this?
Granted, if humans waited for the perfect time to embark on missions of exploration, we might still think the world flat. But there are many earthly challenges--in America in particular--that can give us the sense of accomplishment we seek.
Much of the mess we have to clean up today has been made by President Bush, so maybe the first step in going to Mars should be to limit him to one term.
Come to think of it, an underlying purpose of space exploration is the survival of the species, which implies seeking out new worlds for humans to inhabit once ours becomes uninhabitable.
Considering his record on the environment, maybe President Bush is a visionary after all.
RICHARD AMRHINE is a writer and editor with The Free Lance-Star.