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After Columbia, a bolder vision

President George W. Bush went to the NASA space centre in Houston yesterday and spoke movingly of those aboard the space shuttle Columbia. A Navy bell tolled once for each astronaut, and the memorial ceremony closed with a "missing-man" formation flyover, in which one jet peeled away from others flying over the crowd and soared high and out of sight.

"America's space program will go on," Mr. Bush said, reiterating his message of last Saturday.

But what kind of space program?

A Columbia inquiry has been established. It is bound to focus on damage to heat-retarding tiles during liftoff. NASA officials have promised to be frank with investigators, while they also undertake an internal re-evaluation of procedures. There are concerns, though, about NASA's well-established reputation for trying to hide failings, evident after the Challenger disaster in 1986.

The inquiry must ensure that it gets to the bottom of what went wrong.

But broader issues deserve consideration than simply how Columbia came to its awful end. Should the space-shuttle program remain NASA's priority or has it outlived its usefulness? What of the International Space Station that is joined by the hip to the shuttle program? What, indeed, is NASA's vision for space exploration 15 or 30 years hence?

Perhaps the Columbia disaster should be viewed as an opportunity to re-evaluate the U.S. space program entirely.

Captain Eugene Cernan, who was the last man to walk on the moon as commander of Apollo 17, hears the same queries from the public time and again: "Why didn't we go on? When are we going back?" And they are disappointed when he responds that no human will soon go back to the moon, or on to Mars.

The public isn't blase about space exploration, but it sometimes appears as though NASA is. It seems like a bureaucracy when it should be a calling. It has no mission that Americans -- and the world, now that countries such as Canada are integral -- can readily identify and identify with. Space exploration should excite the imagination; it should be the focus of everyday conversation.

Occasionally, an expedition grabs attention. Consider the astonishment that greeted the razor-sharp photos of Mars transmitted in 1997 by the miniature dune buggy called Sojourner. Or the announcement in 1996 that a meteorite found in Antarctica might contain fossil records of Martian life.

In the past few days, questions have been raised about the value of some of the experiments done on shuttle missions. Some people have wondered why human expeditions occur at all, when much of the work could be done by robots. The skepticism is overdone but not surprising; the evaluation of our time in space seems to have been turned over to accountants instead of visionaries.

There are huge hurdles to interplanetary missions, such as establishing a lunar research base and proceeding from there to Mars. For one thing, a new propulsion system -- likely nuclear -- would be needed. But that isn't beyond the realm of the possible; scientists have suggested ways to cut a trip to Mars to a few weeks (reducing radiation concerns and the amount of food, water and oxygen that would needed.)

U.S. president John Kennedy electrified the public in 1961 by vowing that an American would walk on the moon by the end of the decade. The goal was met. It is time for another audacious leap.

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