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Lost in Space

Mr. Rove, I`m a child of the Apollo program. Like most Americans, I was awed by Neil Armstrong`s landing on the moon, and held my breath during the Apollo 13 crisis. I spent many a grade school recess playing "Lost in Space" instead of hopscotch. When other nine-year-old girls were asking for dolls for Christmas, I was requesting official NASA books about the Apollo missions. (I still have them, as my darling Uncle Bob was wise enough to buy the grown-up versions, so I could enjoy them forever.)

I would love to someday have an opportunity to fly into space on the shuttle, if it ever flies again. I get up in the wee hours of the morning on frigid winter nights to watch the Leonid meteor showers, which are by far the most exciting fireworks shows I`ve ever seen, year after year. I bought a telescope as a birthday gift for my husband, which he never gets the chance to use. In short, I`ve always been captivated by the idea of space and space exploration. So you will probably be surprised to hear that I was profoundly disillusioned and disappointed by the Moon and Mars initiative that President Bush announced this past Tuesday.

Obviously, I`m a member of the target audience for such an idea: baby boomer, borderline Republican, somewhat disaffected by the Bush administration disconnect on issues that matter to me, discouraged by the progress (or lack thereof) of the war in Iraq and the war on terror, and skirting the edge of cynicism on the state of the economy. I`m also old enough to remember the Apollo flights and young enough to be optimistic that another Moon landing will happen in my lifetime. And it was my longtime fascination with space that made me give the President and his idea the benefit of the doubt. I had first suspected this was a marketing ploy, and a mighty flimsy one at that.

Sadly, it seems this instinct was correct. As David Sanger and Richard W. Stevenson noted in Thursday`s New York Times, "With the nation deeply divided along partisan lines on the most pressing issues of the day, including the war in Iraq, tax cuts and the environment, Mr. Bush`s political advisers backed the plan as a way of associating the president with a unifying and uplifting election-year goal that transcends politics." ("Bush Backs Goal of Flight to Moon to Establish Base," January 15, 2004.) You`re a smart man, Mr. Rove. Did you really believe the electorate so gullible as to be fooled by such a transparent effort? Talk about cynical.

Firstly, President Bush allocated a laughably low budget for this project. You know very well, Mr. Rove, that an additional $1 billion dollars in funding over five years will barely get you onto the drawing board at NASA. Of course, a larger number would have elicited howls of protest from all sides; I suppose you figured that this was as good a number as any. President Bush argues that an additional $11 billion can be redistributed over the next five years from NASA`s current budget, but as Senator Bill Nelson [D-FL} noted on the $11 billion, "the devil is in the details." ("Bush Creative on NASA Aid,"Kenneth Chang, The New York Times, January 15, 2004.) Even NASA officials are wary of the potential for redistribution of the remaining $11 billion in funds to get the initiative started.

Which programs at NASA will be cut? Which will be reorganized under the new initiative? President Bush evidently has no idea. Now, I`m all for the restructuring of NASA. I`m of the opinion that every bureaucracy within the government ought to reassess its goals and operations periodically, the more frequently the better. However, giving the agency an impossible task with absurdly inadequate resources with which to accomplish it, seems a ridiculously poor way to trim the fat at NASA. Additionally, with the unfinished business abroad of the war on terror with al Qaida and the rebuilding of Iraq, and at home with health care and the economy, can the U.S. Treasury really spare $1 billion over the next five years? If you don`t know the answer, the electorate does. Surely competing, more pressing problems have to get priority. Why make the initiative if the funds aren`t there, if not for a craven political purpose?

Secondly, technology is so advanced now it is almost an archaic idea to send human beings into space. Robert Park, a physics professor at the University of Maryland, made a compelling case for the continuing use of technology in space exploration on the "NewsHour" on Wednesday night: "we can do it with machines–in fact, it`s not really a robot that`s on Mars; it`s just an extension of a scientist back on Earth. And he directs the robot, he sees through the robot`s eyes. It can do anything a human being can do. In fact, if a human being was on Mars, he`d be trapped in a spacesuit with no sense of touch or feel. There`s nothing much to hear. He would have only the sense of his eyes. And that little rover we`ve got on Mars has better eyes than any human."

As expensive as the Spirit was, the cost was insignificant compared to the astronomical bill of sending a human mission to Mars, or even back to the Moon. Lori Garver, a former NASA administrator, argued, "I want my kids to have somebody who is more interesting to them [than the Spirit rover]is to me, it`s definitely more than magic." The Spirit, however, has proven to be magical for NASA: the NASA website reported a record number of hits on January 9, the day Spirit landed on Mars. Who says we ordinary folk don`t get excited about robots? The Spirit took its first steps on Mars yesterday, going a whopping ten feet, a 78-second giant leap for robot kind, while NASA scientists and I cheered back on Earth. We don`t need men on the Moon (been there, done that), or Mars, to explore the universe, Mr. Rove, and you know it.

I`m surprised that, as this administration`s very savvy political counselor, Mr. Rove, you would allow President Bush to make a public proposal that not only isn`t half-baked, it`s not even ready for the oven. It smacks of desperation, another in a long line of inept, inadequate proposals made in a failing effort in order to distract from other, more important issues. The electorate can`t be snookered in this way. Voters know that the fact that young men and women are dying in Iraq is important. Voters know the fact that Osama bin Laden is at large is important. Voters know that the economic recovery is tenuous, and that people who have no health care are suffering, and that these things are important. More important than a frivolous public relations effort from which much is promised, but from which nothing will come. William Broad of the NYT penned an excellent outline of the promises (and failures) of previous Presidents, to which I expect this new pig-in-a-poke will be promptly added. It is very unfortunate, since now any serious (and badly needed) efforts at remaking NASA by President Bush will be treated with skepticism and deep distrust, and rightfully so. Your counsel has failed the President, Mr. Rove.

On Wednesday`s "NewsHour," Professor Park noted, "the great adventure of our time is to explore those places where no human can set foot." We are indeed fortunate to be living in an age when that great adventure can be lived, if only at a robot`s arms` length. It`s probably better that way, since, right now, this administration`s Moon and Mars initiative is hopelessly lost in space.

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