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The allure of outer space -- for the parents of tomorrow's Martians

Temporary Astronaut Jake Garn, the Utah senator, spoke for an important fraction of the world's youth while he orbited on board the space shuttle Discovery recently. Asked if he would rather be a senator or an astronaut, he replied: ``If I were about 10 years younger, I would choose the working astronaut over being a senator so fast it would make your head swim.'' He added that his experience on board the shuttle ``proves to me that man is needed in space and has a great role to play in the future.'' It's a vision shared by many young men and women today. Harrison Schmitt, a former US senator (from New Mexico) and moon-walking astronaut, has said that the reception he gets in speaking around the United States and in other countries has convinced him that ``the frontier of space -- the new ocean of exploration, commerce, and human achievement -- has produced a level of excitement and motivation among young generations of the world that has not been seen for nearly a century.''

That enthusiasm enlivened Spacefair '85, held recently on the campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and at other sites nearby. It was organized by students, with several universities in the area participating. Spacefair '85 brought Schmitt and dozens of other leaders from space science and engineering, the aerospace industry, and space-oriented military agencies face to face with their successors in these fields. This was not a recruiting exercise. It was a mutual exploration of where mankind is going in space and of the challenges that lie ahead -- an interchange that captured the attention of hundreds of students.

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If the personal commitment, organizing skills, and budding professional competence shown by the fair's student sponsors are any guide -- as observers such as Schmitt say they are -- then it is obvious that some formidable talent will soon be applied to developing the space frontier. One is tempted to think that the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the Soviet Union are preparing permanently occupied space stations only just in time to meet the new generation's demand for action.

If NASA can stick to its fast-paced schedule, its space station should be a working orbital outpost by 1992. That would be in time to help celebrate Columbus's discovery of the Americas. But the full flowering of the space station as a potential staging post for development of the moon and Mars probably won't occur until early next century.

This is why Schmitt, in touting what he calls the ``Millennium Project,'' refers to today's young space enthusiasts as the ``parents of the first Martians.'' As a major early goal for the 21st century -- the next millennium, that is -- he proposes establishing a permanent settlement on Mars. He and many other space prophets believe this to be a feasible project whose foundations will be laid by today's space-minded youth -- a project their children will bring to fruition.

Such dreams may strike some people as impractical or irrelevant to the problems facing humanity on Earth, just as earlier dreams of lunar exploration, shuttle flights, and weather and communications satellites provoked scoffs when the space age opened nearly three decades ago.

But the perspective in which The Christian Science Monitor then viewed such vision remains apt today. To quote from the newspaper's 50th anniversary edition, published in 1958:

``Of course, progress has to be demonstrated. But daily it becomes clearer that it is a spiritual and mental process. Thought is the pioneer. Once self-imposed mental barriers begin to fall, astounding things happen. . . .

``Why go into space? Just to satisfy curiosity? No, although what is called curiosity may be connected with more respected qualities -- the thirst to know, the desire to grow. . . .

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``Space is only the latest frontier. The youth who dreams of traveling to the stars is today's version of the caveman who wondered what lay beyond the hill and finally dared to climb until he discovered a new world in the next valley. The unknown ever beckons. No perils, no failures, no timid logic ever prevails finally against the necessity to dream, to inquire, to seek, to test, to explore.''

Young men and women who dreamed such dreams in 1958 became the engineers, scientists, astronauts, and, yes, the NASA and Soviet bureaucrats who opened the space frontier. Young people dreaming such dreams today will begin the permanent occupation of near-Earth space and open new frontiers on the moon and Mars tomorrow.

A Tuesday column. Robert C. Cowen is the Monitor's natural science editor.

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