The US space program does not currently exceed 1% of our GDP and even with the projected increases in spending over the next several years proposed by the President it will remain below the 1% level. The President isn't so much planning an expensive and elaborate new space initiative as he is trying to set an agenda, giving NASA a goal; something it has been lacking since 1969. I believe it's a good idea. It kindles our imagination and thirst for expansion. It's probably better for us to start colonizing the moon before the Chinese get there. It's the surest way to secure the existence of our species. So who wants to go to Mars? http://www.whitehouse.gov/space/vision.html A related article, http://freerepublic.com/focus/f-news/1053810/posts Raising the Mars Bar The irony of NASA's scoring a 300-million-mile hole-in-one by landing the Spirit rover in the Gusev crater on Mars -- while, barely 200 miles from home, an occupied but uncompleted International Space Station circles forlornly above grounded space shuttles -- is practically Shakespearean. The scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory who conceived the mission and are running it are carrying on a tradition that goes back 40 years, to when JPL's Mariner 4 became the first visitor from Earth to reach Mars. That tradition gave the U.S. a bicentennial present in the summer of 1976 when two Viking spacecraft landed on Mars while their orbiters relayed a library of data back home. And in July 1997, Spirit's diminutive predecessor, Sojourner, became the first machine to rove on Martian terrain. The exploration of Mars, like the exploration of the rest of the solar system, has been spectacularly successful, even allowing for mishaps like the disappearance of the Mars Polar Lander four years ago. Voyager 2's 12-year Grand Tour of four of the five outer planets, which ended at Neptune in 1989, gave the people of Earth a priceless gift: unprecedented knowledge about our neighboring worlds. Equally important, but seldom mentioned, the tour provided a spiritual lift that came with the thrill of purposeful discovery done creatively. Everyone who was privileged to live through the experience of seeing and hearing 12 of their fellow creatures stand on the Moon in the Apollo Program, which started in July 1969 and ended in December 1972, had the same feeling of deep pride in humanity. The political motive for sending astronauts to the Moon has long since paled in comparison to their and their nation's stunning achievement. The USSR is gone. The achievement will stand forever. The robotic exploration of Mars and the exploration of the Moon by humans have at least two important qualities in common: outstanding technology and a clear sense of purpose. The purpose of exploring Mars and elsewhere -- the compulsion to discover life and accessible places for us to live -- is as strong today as it was when we first struck out for it and Venus, our closest planetary neighbors. As much cannot be said of the post-Apollo human spaceflight program, which is foundering. In the vernacular of the space program, which uses nautical metaphors like spaceship, spaceport, Mariner, Magellan and Viking, NASA's manned program is becalmed. The Columbia tragedy was a grim symbol of the space agency's dilemma, though not many picked up on it in the wake of trying to figure out what went wrong with the horrendously complicated machine and what could be done to prevent another terrible accident. Seven exceptional human beings disintegrated in a $1.8 billion spacecraft whose mission was to carry ants, spiders, bees, scummy Central Park pond water, urine, a magnetized New York City MetroCard and other things to orbit for "science experiments" by American and foreign school children. One experiment was purportedly designed to find out whether spiders would spin different kinds of webs in near-zero gravity. Another was intended to see whether ordinarily short-tempered bees became even more so in space. The urine, euphemistically called "space water," was to be mixed with paint to see if it could be used instead of precious real water to color abodes on the Moon. Those "experiments" and scores of others could have been carried by an ELV, or expendable launch vehicle, which would not have required a crew. Instead, they were hauled to space in a fabulously pricey and notoriously finicky spacecraft by people who were not necessary for the mission. Similarly, Challenger blew up trying to get a Tracking and Data Relay Satellite to space that also could have launched on an expendable. The bugs, the pee, the satellite and other "payloads" that could have gotten to space without human chauffeurs were put in shuttles as part of a program that in the most honest of all possible worlds would be called Make Work. Meanwhile, the International Space Station continues to run in circles with successive astronauts undergoing endless and repetitive physiological tests whose purpose is to see how the human body would react to long-duration missions that are not even being seriously considered, let alone in the works. The ISS therefore actually has no purpose. With no articulated goal, no focus to match the drive to learn about Mars and perhaps find traces of life in the process, there is no Spirit in the manned program (pun intended) to match that of NASA's space science and exploration program. But there could be. There is a compelling reason for humans to take to space, but realizing it will take more imagination and drive than either the current NASA bureaucracy or the legislators who control their funding seem capable of achieving. That reason is to finally get off Earth permanently and take up residence in one or more large stations and on a self-sustaining lunar base that would grow into a sizable colony. The purpose is not abstract adventure. That's compelling in comic books, not on Capitol Hill. The reason for populating space is to help assure the survival of civilization, both against its own murderous proclivities and in a dangerous universe, by spreading its seed. The Moon is the best place to begin that process because it is close and has the mineral and other constituents necessary to support life. And a settlement would be a very good place to keep a continuously updated archive of our civilization's record as a hedge against a human-created or natural catastrophe on the home planet. That -- protecting Earth and the civilization that dwells on it -- is the one vital reason to have a space program involving humans. It is so important nothing else comes close. And with the Moon settled, we can strike out for Mars, a place we will long since have come to know very well. That's what I like to think Spirit is really all about: It is part of a single majestic enterprise with people and machines working together for a profoundly important purpose.