Thinking big

January 13, 2004

NO ONE has to sell Marylanders on the benefits of space travel. With so many space-related agencies and aerospace contractors located here, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that a huge new investment in space flight would be a boon to the local economy. Buck Rogers "R" Us.

And yet, we can't help but be skeptical about President Bush's plans to call for manned missions to the moon and Mars.

What is he thinking? He wants to launch a program estimated to cost a trillion dollars at a time when the government is running $500 billion in the red, waging a global war on terrorism and embarking on a long-term commitment to the reconstruction of Iraq?

Sure, we're suckers for space, and we get that Mr. Bush wants a "big idea" to provide an inspiring backdrop to his re-election campaign. But why not be truly bold and tackle some of our earthbound challenges?

How about a grand vision for ensuring universal health care, including long-term care? Or the president could pledge himself to a speedy overhaul of Social Security before it becomes financially unsustainable.

If he wants to think really big, Mr. Bush could set a 10-year goal of weaning the U.S. off fossil fuels, thus advancing national security and cleaning up the environment at the same time.

What about a voyage to inner space? A mission to rescue the poor, the unskilled, the abandoned youths of cities such as Baltimore from lifetimes of despair could be heroic beyond measure.

President Bush has previously pledged himself to compassionate causes, such as leaving no child behind in the classroom and bringing relief to the AIDS-ravaged continent of Africa. But the money he provides fails to match his rhetoric.

As he heads into a re-election battle against still badly splintered Democrats, Mr. Bush is in a position to take up a cause that truly matters, one that will ensure him a much more important legacy than cutting taxes, toppling Saddam Hussein or even recharting the nation's course in the heavens. If he wins a second term, the president should use his political capital to try to ensure that he leaves the country healthier, happier, stronger, safer and smarter than he found it in 2000.

Sooner or later, Americans and others on Earth will travel to Mars and beyond. But such missions should not be allowed to divert attention from the critical work to be done here.

These journeys to the stars are only exciting and romantic when the goal is exploration and adventure. Space travel won't be nearly so inspiring if the prime motivation is to escape the mess we've left behind.

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