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Moon dreams: NASA's galactic rut

Dwindling funds, familiar path, leave agency grasping for a goal.

When Neil Armstrong's boots first tamped the lunar dust, the universe seemed within humanity's reach. In less than a decade, America had built a program that turned space from an untouched frontier into a canvas for some of history's most daring ideas.

Technicolor prints in glossy magazines and picture books confidently foretold the not-too-distant future: colonies on the moon, space stations spinning in the ether, astronauts sifting the Martian soil. From the Mercury program to Apollo 11, missions could have taken their inspiration from "Star Trek": To boldly go where no one has gone before.

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Yet in the national analysis of America's space program following this month's Columbia disaster, one fact has become clear: While today's astronauts travel with that same boldness, their destination is a place many have already been.

The question of why Earth's astronauts continue to follow roughly the same path that John Glenn laid out when he orbited the planet 41 years ago is a complicated one, bounded by science, budgets, and bad decisions. But the crash of the space shuttle Columbia has given fresh purpose to those who wonder what the future of human spaceflight is - and what part the shuttle has to play.

To some, the International Space Station and the shuttles are invaluable staging areas for cosmic forays, teaching humans how to live and work in space. To others, though, they are part of a hugely expensive, largely ignored, and scientifically dubious venture that exists only because it has too much political energy to halt. The split is reflected in the American public as well. In a new Christian Science Monitor/TIPP poll, 60 percent of Americans said NASA is doing "just about enough" to advance manned spaceflight. Of the rest, similar numbers said the agency does "too much" or "too little."

Whether NASA stays its current course will depend, in part, on what conclusions Congress and investigators draw from the shuttle accident. In the balance lies the vision of when and how America will expand into the farther reaches of outer space. "A great society should do great things," says Mark Lewis, an aerospace engineer at the University of Maryland in College Park. "It's not good if we don't have longer-term goals." Defining those goals and achieving them, however, has vexed America's space agency since the last astronaut came back from the moon. More than 30 years later, there is still no satisfactory answer.

To be sure, the broad strokes of the future of space travel have changed little since Arthur Clarke envisaged 2001 as a time of space ports on the moon. Many would like to return to the moon. Others talk of prospecting asteroids in a galactic gold rush. Almost all view Mars as the next great step.

They are ambitious aims, but, most agree, feasible with modern technology. NASA estimates that a manned trip to Mars would take six months and $50 billion. One NASA scientist suggests that a moon base for four astronauts could be built in six years, with $50 billion. Yet those figures are more than three times NASA's annual budget, and the political climate that such fueled massive projects is gone.

Without the fear that Soviets would soon drop bombs from space, Congress has shrunk NASA's share of the budget from more than 4 percent to less than 1 percent. In an era when astronauts find their greatest competition in welfare and Medicare, NASA has struggled to inspire the nation, as well as budgeteers.

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In the years after Apollo, the space shuttle seemed to be that idea. The goal was simple, but profound: As reusable vehicles, the shuttle fleet would save NASA money that was wasted when rockets discarded their parts after liftoff. It was, in essence, intended to be an orbital 18-wheeler, cheaply ferrying cargo and crew into space dozens of times a year.

Now, however, as the shuttles' cost has swelled to roughly a half-billion dollars per mission, this springboard to exploration has become a tether to more modest goals.

"We made decisions that weren't the best in the 1970s, but we have to deal with what we have now," says Brian Chase of the National Space Society in Washington. Indeed, there is little choice. With so much money tied up in the shuttle and space station, NASA is unlikely to scrap them, and any other endeavor is unlikely without more money.

"In all probability, when all this settles out, we'll go back to the shuttle program more or less as we know it," says Richard Berendzen, a physicist at American University in Washington. Whether that's the best way to explore space polarizes the scientific community. In a time when a scientist can command a Martian rover to collect temperature, wind speed, and a specific rock, more and more critics are saying human spaceflight is unnecessary.

Yet with China touting its plan to establish a lunar base by 2010, most still see a role for humans in space - even the potential for a new space race. And the shuttle program may play a part. "We have to go through the process of finding out how to live in space," says futurist Michael Zey. "We might as well do it on the space station."