President Bush’s call for a new and ambitious American space initiative, with the ultimate aim of landing men on Mars, has understandably met with a mixed response.

Although the project will take decades, thereby spreading the very considerable expense over many years, there is no wholly satisfactory answer to the objection that the money ought to be spent on noble objectives much closer to home: the eradication of hunger, disease and sheer ignorance, to name only three.

To reply it is humanity’s inescapable destiny to press onward – first across great oceans and virgin continents, and then outward into the solar system, and even beyond it – sounds at first like a foolish, even arrogant sentimentality. But anyone who has studied human history with a modicum of thoughtfulness knows just how imperative that impulse is, and how powerfully it has contributed to the progress, and the essential happiness, of mankind. It is the obligation of the United States, as the technological leader among the world’s nations, to respond to that impulse in our time, and Bush’s proposal indicates he is up to that responsibility.

The current American space program has clearly reached a dead end. The construction and maintenance of a space station, and its regular resupply by space shuttles, have been remarkable achievements, albeit costly ones in both lives and treasure. But the landing of men on the moon in 1969 and a few subsequent years were the last really historic steps that NASA took, and the experiments recently devised by high-school students to occupy the time of astronauts in the space shuttles are little more than insults to the human intelligence.

Bush proposes to build a permanent space station, regularly occupied by men and women, on the moon, and to use that to stage expeditions to Mars, 35 million miles away. It will be well toward the middle of the 21st century before we get there, but the effort will evoke prodigies of technological creativity year by year, with incalculable collateral benefits.

It is too bad that NASA, in its effort to whip up and sustain public interest in the current exploration of Mars by unmanned robots, has seen fit to insist that its principal purpose is to search for evidence of past or present life on our neighbor planet. That unquestionably captures the public imagination, and helps justify the expense, but the directors of the project certainly know better. Earlier probes of both the moon and Mars have established that both are bone-dry and bitterly cold, without the slightest evidence that “life,” or something analogous to it, has ever existed on either.

Of course, a scientist, even if free of cynicism, can be as romantic as a teenage girl, and some have managed to convince themselves that liquid water once did, and may still (in hidden caves) exist on Mars. From there, a few (like writer William J. Broad in the Jan. 11 New York Times) even rush on to predict the presence of life, describing its appearance in water, on exactly no evidence whatever, as “nearly inevitable.”

Bear in mind that, during our earlier robotic exploration of Mars, when scientists noted an unexpected chemical reaction to some tempting concoction they had sent along, one idiot with a scientific degree made headlines by exclaiming, “Something up there likes chicken soup!”

We are lonely, here on our little blue-green planet, and we would dearly love to believe that we have company out there in the immensity of space. And perhaps we do – although it’s a bit ominous that the Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence has been scouring the sky for decades without finding so much as a single radio transmission suggestive of anything but pure static.

Someday, we may have to face the fact that we have this whole gigantic place to ourselves. And with that will come the realization that mankind is more special even than we thought, and that we had better get on with looking around the property.

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