Sunday, Apr 22, 2018
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Mars may have to wait

In Houston, at NASA's Johnson Space Center, scientists are talking about the crops that intrepid space travelers will grow when they travel to Mars.

But in Washington there's concern that the space agency's projected budget deficits may keep this country's space exploration, if not grounded, at least severely curtailed.

This is the disconnect between grandiose ideas, the dreams of new frontiers in space that energized the pioneers of the space program and still thrill the imagination of millions of Americans, and the reality of an agency that can't seem to get things right.

Recent news reports show that NASA could face a deficit of more than $6 billion between next year and 2010, when the space shuttle will be retired. That shortfall stems from troubles in the shuttle program since the 2003 Columbia disaster which have meant only one flight since then - and that flight, of Discovery this year, saw a recurrence of the problems with foam insulation that downed Columbia.

Limiting shuttle flights has been suggested as one answer, but NASA says that wouldn't result in significant savings. Increased government funding of the space program is unlikely to get off the ground.

That leaves NASA between a rock and a space station, and puts President Bush in something of a dilemma because of its impact on his "Vision for Space Exploration." That vision involves completion of the space station, the return of humans to the moon in 2020, and later a mission to Mars.

Right now, most Americans would rather NASA and the Bush Administration limit their horizons in the short term. Missions to Mars will remain the stuff of science fiction unless NASA can demonstrate an ability to fly safely and fix problems on the existing shuttle.

In the immediate future the agency must dedicate itself to return the shuttle to space, and to ensure there's a successor to safely and efficiently send astronauts to the international space station. That accomplished, then thoughts can turn to deep space.

As we have noted before, the agency cannot rely on public largesse at a time when attention is turned to needs here on earth in the wake of this season's devastating hurricanes. Many Americans, we feel sure, would say that first we help our hurricane victims, then we think about colonizing Mars.

Space exploration is a manifestation of the same restless urge to push the boundaries of our knowledge that has fueled great adventures throughout history. Set foot first on the moon, then the other planets.

It is the stuff of dreams. And it can become so once more, when the shuttle program is once again running safely and efficiently.

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