The United States is sending two robotic probes to Mars to study the planet's surface. But whatever happened to a manned mission to the Red Planet, an idea that seemed almost a certainty a generation ago?
Washington, 2 July 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Director Stanley Kubrick's 1968 film "2001: A Space Odyssey" portrays the dawn of a new millennium in which residents of Earth regularly commute to the moon.
In one sequence, a scientist named Heywood Floyd passes time during a brief stop at a space station by using a video telephone to make a call to his home on Earth. He speaks with his young daughter, who asks,
"Are you coming to my party tomorrow?"
"I'm sorry, sweetheart, but I can't."
"Well, you know, Daddy's traveling. I'm very sorry about it, but I just can't. I'm going to send you a very nice present, though."
Kubrick's images may have been compelling, but the reality today -- two years after the fictional events depicted in the film -- is much more pedestrian.
Today, the U.S. manned space program is limited to shuttle missions and sojourns aboard the orbiting International Space Station (ISS). And even the shuttle program is thought to be in danger of cutbacks because of safety concerns after the shuttle Columbia broke apart during re-entry in February, killing all seven astronauts aboard.
A generation ago, however, the U.S. space program was operating at full throttle. The program survived a capsule fire that killed three astronauts preparing for the first flight of the Apollo program. Apollo went on to include 11 manned missions into space. And six times it achieved U.S. President John F. Kennedy's stated goal of landing men on the moon.
By Apollo's last mission in 1972, moon landings seemed almost routine, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), shifted its attention to the shuttle program. The shuttles have primarily been used to put satellites into orbit and to maintain and repair them. It is also being used to ferry materials to construct the ISS.
Probably the shuttle's best-known achievement was setting up the Hubble Space Telescope -- then repairing it, maintaining it, and upgrading it. Hubble has been a spectacular success, capturing stunning images of the universe in its distant infancy.
But Hubble can bring mankind to new worlds only visually. There are now no plans to take humans back to the moon or to Mars. NASA is sending two robotic vehicles to Mars to study the surface of that planet. The European Space Agency is also sending a similar probe.
What happened to the U.S. space program over the past three decades? What has stalled what, at one time, was thought to be certain progress toward making space travel a reality, not only for astronauts but also for ordinary people?
According to analysts, there is a one-word answer: money.
The question remains, however, whether the money is being withheld because the people of the United States believe their tax dollars are better spent on other priorities, or because their political leaders lack the vision to take humankind toward what Kubrick and the author of "2001," Arthur C. Clarke, saw as the next step in human evolution.
Theresa Hitchens primarily blames political leaders. She is the vice president of the Center for Defense Information, a nonpartisan policy research center in Washington that specializes in technology and security issues.
Hitchens attributes the decline of the U.S. space program to what she calls the "politics of money." She says Washington is reluctant to invest heavily in extraterrestrial exploration unless there is a guaranteed return on that investment.
In this way, she says, the U.S. political establishment is much like the U.S. business and investment community -- which she refers to collectively as "Wall Street," the U.S. financial center.
Hitchens says money that might go to NASA is spent on the U.S. military. She explains that private companies that sell hardware to the Defense Department make their work attractive to voters because they provide jobs nationwide.
"Politicians, like Wall Street, want a result now, that they can show to their voters," Hitchens says. "The only place that's different is in defense because the dollars are so big in defense and the companies [private defense contractors] have been so smart as to put little pieces of a program into every single state."
Hitchens says neglecting space exploration is shortsighted because we will never know what benefits we can reap from it until we do it. She says we might be surprised by the resources found on other worlds. In fact, she says, someday we may need to search places like the moon or Mars for resources essential to our survival on Earth.
"I think that those things are worth exploring because, as the Earth's population continues to increase and the stress on the environment and the resources continues to get worse and things are depleted, it would make sense for mankind in general to be looking for ways to deal with those issues," she says.
Hitchens says a vigorous space program also is important merely for what she calls its "wonder element" -- exploration for its own sake and for a more thorough knowledge of the origins and nature of the universe. This is important, she says, even if it provides no material benefits to humankind.
But according to Hitchens, Americans appear to have outgrown this "wonder element." "The whole shuttle project, in some ways I think, left the American public thinking that space was routine," she says. "We got used to it, so we're not thrilled about it any more."
Hitchens is not alone in promoting space travel for its own sake. John Logsdon is the director of the Space Policy Institute of the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University. Logsdon is also a member of the board conducting the official U.S. government investigation into the Columbia shuttle disaster.
Logsdon says it is a mistake to think the American people and their government shared the vision of Kubrick and Clarke of a mission to expand human frontiers beyond Earth. The space program articulated by Kennedy, he says, was a purely political endeavor.
"The kind of images that were presented in the late '60s in movies like '2001' were and remain aspirations that were never adopted by the society," Logsdon says. "We went to the moon because we were racing the Soviet Union, not because we viewed it as part of a long-term outward movement of the human species. It's only a few people -- unfortunately, from my point of view -- that are committed to the vision of space exploration that was so popular 30 or 35 years ago."
The early successes of the U.S. space program quickly led to ambitious Apollo missions to reach the moon, but Logsdon tells RFE/RL that Apollo was never meant to lead to even more ambitious efforts that would make manned space travel commonplace.
Instead, Logsdon says, Apollo was an isolated example of American determination.
"A lot of people would like to take Apollo as the norm and say that everything since that has been a deviation. But, in fact, Apollo was the exception. I think what the political system has done is assign a lower priority to space for the last 30 years. So, yes, the downsizing from the peak of Apollo is a political decision, but it's a political decision that I think fits where space fits into the priorities of society in 2003," he says.
Logsdon agrees that we will never know what other worlds may have to offer until we visit them. But he says such missions are prohibitively expensive. And he notes that during a previous era of exploration during the 15th century, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain were careful to use their own money -- not state funds -- to finance Christopher Columbus's voyage to the New World.
According to Logsdon, Ferdinand and Isabella certainly hoped for a return on their investment in spices, perhaps, or other resources that were not to be had in Europe. He says they also wanted to spread Christianity.
Five hundred years later, he says, there are no such incentives for exploring space that can overcome its great cost.
"Are there sources of untapped wealth we don't know about? Nobody's made a compelling argument that they're there. Do we need to get off this planet to survive? Maybe, but not in the short run. That's not a compelling reason to do it next year or the year after. We're not spreading religion. Maybe we're spreading democratic capitalism -- but to where? There really isn't a set of strong, compelling motivations, other than human curiosity."
Langston says satisfying human curiosity would be noble, but -- for now -- it is simply too expensive.