RETURNING Americans to the moon will cost more than most are willing to pay: an estimated $3 billion a year if the nation follows former President George W. Bush's relatively modest program proposed half a decade ago.
To date, NASA has spent nearly $8 billion toward returning astronauts to the scene of the nation's greatest technological triumph. The space agency that once had an unlimited budget would like to spend another $92 billion on returning to the moon by 2020.
NASA has many friends in Congress with influential voices advocating a return to the moon along with a manned trip to Mars within the next two decades. A Mars excursion would be less costly and would be technologically easier if the mission were launched in zero gravity from a base on the moon. The problem with this scenario is that the establishment of a viable American-manned moon base isn't likely in the next 20 years.
In testimony on Capitol Hill this week, NASA officials insisted that the goal of a return to the lunar surface, as outlined by the previous president, is doable at $3 billion a year until the mission is completed.
But just as many influential voices argue that establishing a base on a dead world such as the moon makes no sense. The cost of traveling to Mars only to return without establishing a base there should make little sense to cash-strapped Americans.
The bulk of information that humans have garnered about the universe beyond the moon has been delivered via the Hubble space telescope and relatively affordable unmanned probes.
Scientists have analyzed the rings of Saturn, witnessed asteroid strikes on Jupiter, and sent some probes hurtling toward the sun and others into the void beyond Pluto. They have accomplished all of this without leaving the bonds of Earth's orbit for nearly four decades.
Until the economy improves dramatically in coming years, funding an effort to return to the moon and to travel to Mars will be nonstarters. Americans are all out of discretionary cash.
Still, this nation has decades of expertise that would be invaluable to an international manned space mission to Mars and beyond. The United States can't afford to do it on its own anymore, but that doesn't mean we can afford not to do it as a species. The country may be strapped, but its destiny is in the stars - eventually.