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Published: Thursday, 9/22/2011


Rocketing ahead


When the space shuttle fleet was retired after a three-decade run, the angst in Washington and congressional districts affected by the change in mission was thick.

Many Americans feared that once the United States got out of manned space exploration, other nations would rush to fill the vacuum. The idea that NASA would be reduced to paying other nations to take U.S. astronauts into space was ridiculed as tacit acceptance of decline in an area where America once excelled.

President Obama was criticized for canceling his predecessor's ambitious plans to return to the moon. Former astronauts charged that in scrubbing the rocket program championed by George W. Bush, Mr. Obama had ceded America's edge in space to the European Space Agency, China, and India.

But fears that the United States would no longer be a major player in space were premature. NASA has unveiled plans for what would be the world's most powerful rocket -- one that could take a crew to Mars, the asteroid belt, and beyond.

The $3 billion a year Space Launch System is a throwback to the massive boosters that launched Gemini, Mercury, and Apollo into space. The new rocket would be powered by liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen. It could carry as much as 165 tons, compared to a shuttle's 27 tons.

Congress must decide whether the new spending fits into the nation's downsized future budgets. But if it does, NASA could have an unmanned test launch in 2017 and a manned flight to asteroids in the early 2020s. A long-awaited trip to Mars could occur in the 2030s.

The nation's funding concerns are real, but NASA has a mostly good record of carrying out its plans. The can-do attitude that served the space agency for decades still burns bright.

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