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Moon Or Bust?

Back to the Future?

Lunar exploration is one of several Big Ideas the White House is exploring to strengthen President Bush's standing with the voters, according to the Washington Post.

The newspaper said Karl Rove, the president's chief political adviser, is behind the drive to develop ideas likely to capture the imagination of the electorate.

The Post said Mr. Bush's top aides are searching for a bold stroke on the theory that such an initiative will reinforce Mr. Bush's image as a decisive leader.

"Big Works. Big grabs attention," a White House official told the newspaper.

Other ideas on the table include campaigns to increase longevity, fight hunger or childhood diseases. But space travel seems to be generating more political buzz than any other proposal.

NASA and other agencies are working with the White House on a 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.

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.

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