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To Infinity and Beyond
Can a band of true believers blast America's manned space program out of low Earth orbit into a stellar future?

By Joel Achenbach
Sunday, May 15, 2005

He climbed from the lunar module and paused on the final step. Through his visor he surveyed an alien world. It had no sky. It had no life. It was airless and cold. The horizon loomed just a mile or so away, and it curved. The shadows seemed almost supernaturally black, bereft of the scattered light seen in Earth shadows. His footsteps would remain in the packed powder virtually forever, for this was a place without erosion. Nothing moved but his fellow astronaut, already bounding around.

And in that moment, ready to step on the moon, Buzz Aldrin described what he saw: "Magnificent desolation."

Night had fallen across much of the United States as people crowded around the television to watch Aldrin and Neil Armstrong. The future had arrived ballistically, so fast people weren't sure they could trust their senses. Some remained convinced years later that it was all a hoax. The astronauts cut a ghostly outline, as though the camera had double vision. The images were flickering, fuzzy, dreamlike.

But it was all true, and now, decades later, here was the man himself: Buzz Aldrin had come to Disney World!

He was in a ballroom at the Contemporary Resort, the A-frame hotel with the park's monorail running through its center. Aldrin is getting up in years, but he's handsome, tidy, with a shiny little crescent moon pinned to his lapel ("You get that one for coming back," he said). He is astronaut-size, compact, perhaps even a bit elfin; you half expect he'll pull moon dust from his pocket and cast a spell.

Aldrin is a space entrepreneur, and he had come to Orlando for a portentous event, the first Space Exploration Conference, sponsored by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Lockheed Martin and various other firms and organizations with a big stake in space. The context of the conference was a startling fact: The United States has vowed to send people back to the moon. Then to Mars. Then all over the solar system. This is the president's directive, embraced by NASA. It's called the Vision for Space Exploration.

Or simply: the Vision.

How good it is to have a vision! The space people had demanded a vision for years, something better than this round-and-round-and-round business with the space shuttle and the space station, both stuck in a major rut in LEO -- low Earth orbit.

The Vision is pure rocket fuel. "Human beings are headed into the cosmos," the president of the United States declared last year.

The Disney crowd ranged from NASA bureaucrats to freelance rocketeers to hard-core space buffs. They were all exuding optimism, bouncing around as though gravity had weakened. You kept expecting them to say, like the Gene Kranz character in the movie "Apollo 13," "Failure is not an option."

The presence of someone like Aldrin gives any space event a touch of magic. He's treated almost as a deity -- for gosh sakes, he walked on the freakin' moon. And now he had ideas about where we go next: "A logical step is to visit Earth-crossing asteroids."

We were just brainstorming in the hallway.

"I'm convinced that when we go to Mars, we should go to the moons of Mars first," Aldrin said. That would be Phobos and Deimos. The moon man has a thing about moons, maybe.

Standing next to Aldrin was movie director James Cameron. Cameron wants to go to outer space. He's ridden the "vomit comet," the jet that uses parabolic arcs to simulate weightlessness among passengers. He would be thrilled to visit Mars. He said we have to become multi-planetary, just to survive. "If we discovered a comet nucleus or an asteroid on an impact course with Earth, we could do exactly what the dinosaurs did, and we could stare upward with a dumb look on our faces. We need to evolve beyond the dinosaurs," he had told the conference audience minutes earlier. NASA should enlist the media and Hollywood to make the space program more visually dramatic, Cameron told me in the hall. The Mars rovers ought to be on TV. We've seen what the rovers see, but not the rovers themselves. Imagine "Titanic" through Leonardo DiCaprio's eyes without seeing DiCaprio.

I said it sounds as though he wants the space program to be more like a movie.

"Okay. Yes! And they should embrace that."

But why do all this stuff? Why go to the moon again, or Mars, or any of these difficult, faraway, airless, cold, lifeless places?

"It's who we are," said the movie director.

So here's the headline from Disney World: Space is back. The space buffs are reenergized, and they're coming up with schemes that will blow your mind.

They're inventing rockets that might get us to Mars in less than three months.

They're drawing up plans for elevators that could transport cargo into space without any rockets at all -- just hit the "Up" button.

They're diagramming a giant sling that could hurl moon rocks into lunar orbit.

They want to build habitation modules inside lava caves on the moon.

They would like to deploy little exploratory "microbots" that would bounce all over the moon like jumping beans.

They want to build inflatable space hotels.

They may see their plans crushed by the parsimony of federal budgets and the humorlessness of the laws of physics. But there is, at the moment, a renaissance in the Space Age. The sky isn't the limit, suddenly. If all goes right, we'll be zooming all over the solar system. We're back in the game!

Unless it's just a dream.

Grounded

ONE LISTENS TO THE BOLD TALK WITH AN EYEBROW RAISED, like Spock on "Star Trek" whenever Kirk insists on visiting a world with man-eating plants. How much of this stuff is for real?

One day in Orlando everyone took a bus from the Contemporary Resort to Epcot Center, and along the way a smart young aerospace engineer named Tom Hill told me how we can extract helium-3 from moon dirt, turn it into rocket fuel and use it to power the kind of spaceships that could carry people to Mars. He had a contagious enthusiasm. But a skeptical person would have to think: Helium-3? Moon dirt? Mission to Mars? Is this something that is going to actually happen? Or is this just . . . well, is this just Disney World?

Reality check: The American space program is talking about going back to the moon at a time when, last anyone looked, the only American in space is a fellow on the space station who cadged a ride on a Russian rocket.

The first agenda item for the Vision is getting the space shuttle flying again. The shuttle Discovery stands at Pad 39B at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, poised for the return to flight as soon as NASA works through a checklist of post-Columbia-disaster fixes. We dream of the moon and Mars while hoping to get back to LEO. Visionaries draw up plans for starships, but we still need to figure out how to keep chunks of insulating foam from flying off the big shuttle fuel tank and dinging the wing of the orbiter.

The space program has a passel of problems. The Hubble Space Telescope is sinking toward Earth, its orbit "decaying," and the former NASA boss said the space agency couldn't do anything about it. Too dangerous to send astronauts to fix it, he said. Sorry, can't do.

Meanwhile there's that international space station up there, incomplete, overbudget, insufficiently international, underused (what exactly is it for?) and currently home to two men who do a lot of janitorial work.

Space just isn't what it used to be. It's no longer the obvious destination of humankind. It's no longer synonymous with the future. Nanotechnology, biotech, genomics, photonics, artificial intelligence, all that sort of high-tech, gee-whiz stuff you read about in Wired magazine, may now be what space used to be. Astronauts always talk about how spaceflight shows us a small world without borders, but the same point is made when you call your credit card company and find yourself speaking to someone in Manila.

Even space buffs concede the cultural shift. Bretton Alexander, a space entrepreneur who helped write the Vision, said: "We're true believers in space, but we're not so naive as to think that space is still the center of the universe -- politically, technologically. It is not the center of America's consciousness the way it was in the '60s, and never will be."

Many people grew up thinking of "Star Trek" as a documentary of the future. They were ready to be best friends with a Vulcan. Some of them may feel a bit betrayed. In his book Lost in Space, Greg Klerkx asks the essential questions: "What happened to the Space Age? And how do we get it back?"

The Vision

THE ANSWER, IF YOU BELIEVE THE NASA PEOPLE, is the Vision. The Vision is a reaffirmation of the faith, an attempt to say that the Space Age lives.

But it is a Vision hampered by inertial forces: the mass and momentum of the shuttle and the space station. The space program is an oil tanker that can't possibly turn on a dime. Thus the first items in this great new Vision include a return to the tedious things we've been doing for three decades.

The space station, however, will be dedicated to exploratory needs, such as studying the long-term effects of weightlessness on humans. NASA plans to send a robotic mission to the moon by 2008, laying the groundwork for the return of astronauts. In 2010, we'll retire the shuttle and build a new spacecraft, the Crew Exploration Vehicle. The plan is to send astronauts to the moon no later than 2020, and establish a moon base similar to what we've got down in Antarctica.

Eventually (the Vision gets blurry here), we'll send humans to Mars, to the near-Earth asteroids, to the moons of Jupiter, wherever we want to go. We'll have busted free of LEO. The space agency will be dedicated to Exploration. That word is so sanctified at headquarters that it's always capitalized.

The Vision emerged from the wreckage of Columbia. After seven astronauts died aboard the burning, disintegrating shuttle in February 2003, the accident investigation board said NASA not only had institutional flaws, but lacked any real vision. Meanwhile, a handful of White House staffers tried to figure out what the space program should do with itself. After nearly a year of effort (the definitive account of which can be found in New Moon Rising, by Frank Sietzen Jr. and Keith Cowing), they produced the Vision.

The president announced the Vision on January 14, 2004. The new agenda grabbed the attention of the space community but never quite captured the public imagination. Bush didn't even mention it in his subsequent State of the Union address. During the presidential campaign, the future of NASA barely ranked as an issue.

But even this lack of attention is in keeping with the Vision's strategy. It's not a crash program and supposedly won't require the psychic and budgetary energy that went into Apollo. The Vision's promoters want to avoid a repeat of the notorious Space Exploration Initiative (SEI), announced by President George H.W. Bush in 1989. SEI had the basic Vision conceits of a return to the moon and voyages to Mars. But that plan was a whale with suckerfish all over it. It had all kinds of shuttles and space stations and moon bases and Mars rockets and everything this side of starships screaming toward the Andromeda Galaxy. Rumors circulated that it would cost $400 billion, a number that spooked Congress. SEI went to the graveyard of government acronyms.

The Vision has no official price tag, because it claims that NASA won't need any extra money to go to the moon and Mars. We'll go slowly, on the cheap. A skeptical observer might wonder how the government could inexpensively send people to another planet when it can barely afford to run trains from Washington to New York.

The Vision emits a whiff of conflict avoidance. It's almost a stealth program, an attempt to tippy-toe to the moon and beyond by noncontroversial increments. In the near term, there's no singular moment when we decide, as a country, that we're definitely doing this. John Logsdon, the sage academic who runs a think tank called the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, said: "If you're really cynical, you could say that this plan makes that decision without a decision . . . If it works, one day we're there."

It's, like, Oh, by the way, we're back on the moon.

"We have to take this in spirals, take this in steps," NASA official Terri Lomax told an audience of university professors in Columbia recently. "Spirals" is the buzzword of the moment. Returning to the moon for a couple weeks is only Spiral 2; setting up a moon base for 90 days would be Spiral 3. This kind of talk scares some space folks. A spiral, they point out, is not exactly the shortest path between two points.

The incremental approach puts the Vision at political risk. At the moment, NASA hasn't decided on the design of the Crew Exploration Vehicle, and even when that decision is made, the plan could be killed by Congress or a future administration. NASA is already making internal changes in homage to the Vision (most notably, cuts in aeronautics research), but most of the big-ticket items would happen long after President Bush is gone. Robert Zubrin, president of the Mars Society and a proponent of rapid colonization of Mars, argues that Bush essentially said, "I think it's a good idea to go to the moon and Mars, and whoever is elected in 2012 can work on it."

Zubrin says that we could go to Mars right now if we had the political will. It's a long, dangerous trip (maybe six months one way, unless someone invents a really fast spaceship). But it's not clear that the public is sold on the idea. James Cameron told the Disney crowd that the space community needs to build public support for this bold agenda, because otherwise "the dream will die with the first budget overage or first setback."

So, is it real, this Vision? The safe answer is, not yet. The Vision doesn't really even qualify as a plan. It's more like a fancy PowerPoint presentation.

NASA does have an ace in the hole: a new administrator, Michael Griffin, a rocket scientist and true believer in the Vision. His predecessor, Sean O'Keefe, was a management expert who talked in management-ese and could seemingly go months without uttering the word "space." But Griffin is a real space guy. He wants to get out there and explore. He said at his first news conference that he wouldn't have taken the job if we were just going to do the same things we've been doing in LEO for three decades. He thinks that if we don't venture into the solar system, someone else will. At his nomination hearing last month, he told senators that space remains competitive:

"The 'discovery' of the New World had happened before and would have happened again, whether or not Columbus had ever sailed from Palos. One way or another, European settlement of the New World was inevitable; however, it was Isabella's bold action that secured Spain's role in that future."

Griffin all but says we're still in a space race. Since Columbia disintegrated, both Russia and China have put astronauts into orbit. Go along with our Vision, Griffin essentially says, or the next person on the moon might be speaking Mandarin.

The Commander

BUT BEFORE WE GO SCREAMING OFF to distant worlds, we have to get our space legs back. That's the basic goal of this next shuttle mission, STS-114 -- the Return to Flight.

The commander of the mission is the quintessential astronaut: tough, decisive, confident, with a checklist mind-set, an ability to see a mission as a set of procedures, interspersed with solvable problems. Culturally we tend to think of astronauts as guys named Buzz and Frank and Jim and Deke. But the commander's name is Eileen -- Eileen Collins. Her right stuff can beat the daylights out of your right stuff.

"I'm always checking my 6," she said. Her 6 o'clock position, whatever's right behind her, maybe sneaking up on her. It's a fighter-pilot expression.

She spoke at the Johnson Space Center, near Houston, in a cavernous building that holds what is alleged to be the world's largest indoor swimming pool. NASA does big things, dramatic things, and does them precisely. The water in the pool was as clear as space itself. The pool boy hadn't overdone the chlorine. Peering into the 40-foot depths, you could see full-size mockups of the space shuttle payload bay and a portion of the international space station. Two of Collins's colleagues were down there, floating around the shuttle in their bulky pressure suits, training for spacewalks. They were like bumblebees hovering around a flower. During the actual mission, they'll attempt to perform orbital home repair with a kind of glue gun, though no one knows if it will work. NASA, hedging its bet, will have a second shuttle ready in case it needs to mount the first rescue in space.

Which is a reminder that NASA does courageous things. Astronauts represent a distinct type of person, the type who runs marathons as a hobby and thinks it'd be neat to travel at 17,000 mph. Spaceflight remains experimental and hazardous. A few years back, Collins commanded a shuttle mission that had two underpublicized brushes with calamity during launch -- an electrical short and a fuel leak. The shuttle never quite reached full speed, and Collins nearly had to abort the flight and attempt to land in Spain or back at Cape Canaveral. The shuttle sputtered its way into space, and, using backup fuel, rose to the correct orbit. During the crisis, her training took over.

"For a split second I thought I was in the simulator," she said. "Then I reminded myself that I was in a real mission."

Collins is about to blast into space again in a type of spacecraft that, last time it flew, turned into a debris field across Texas and Louisiana. Seconds after launch, a chunk of insulating foam broke free of the shuttle's external fuel tank and slammed into one of Columbia's wings. Engineers warned that the damage could be catastrophic during reentry, but mission officials took no action. One said that there was nothing to be done anyway. Everyone just hoped for the best, and then watched the worst unfold. NASA didn't pay enough attention to its 6.

Collins lost seven friends that morning while scanning the clear blue Texas sky for a glimpse of the returning spacecraft. Surely it would be passing overhead, minutes from landing in Florida. The phone rang. A colleague's voice said: "We lost Columbia. Turn on your TV set."

She called her parents, called her shuttle crew, called a babysitter and raced to work.

"It took several days and weeks for me to process the whole thing," she said. "You think: Is this really happening?"

Astronauts have no delusions about the risks of spaceflight. But they try to remain, as Collins put it, "confident and mission-oriented." Rick Hauck, an astronaut who flew on the first shuttle flight after the Challenger explosion -- and who has a special sense of what Collins is about to face -- said that as the shuttle accelerated through Mach 16, a thought infiltrated his mind: "I hope this thing doesn't blow up." Then he pushed it out of his consciousness and went back to work.

These people do daring stuff in part because they really believe in the Space Age dream. They keep the faith.

"I think for the long-, long-term survival of the human race, we need to get off this planet," Collins said. "We need to have people on Mars doing research, colonizing later. And we need to develop a new means of propulsion to get people to other areas of the solar system and to allow human transportation to other areas around the galaxy."

That's "Star Trek" talk coming from one of the most pragmatic people you'll ever meet. She's checking her 6, but dreaming of Warp 8.

The Spaceship

COLLINS SAID THAT BOTH THE SHUTTLE ACCIDENTS, Columbia and Challenger, could have been avoided if people had done a better job of "listening to the hardware." You can find the hardware at Cape Canaveral, a knuckle of land poking into the Atlantic about halfway down the Florida peninsula. The cape is a wildlife refuge, covered by piney woods and orange groves. It is dominated by the VAB, the Vehicle Assembly Building, a box 525 feet tall, roomy enough to hold a Saturn V rocket, and now four decades old, which in Florida qualifies it as a historic landmark.

Space is not just an industry at the cape, it's a tradition. Kennedy Space Center calls itself "America's Spaceport." You can walk through a "rocket garden," flowering with the odd species of rockets that took us farther and farther into the firmament.

But a lot of it feels old, a little crusty. There is a disease in the world of space, what you might call space agedness: old spaceships, old launch infrastructure, old engineers and technicians (you hear grumbling that NASA doesn't attract young people like it used to, that its employees are too often "pale, male and stale"). They finally tore down the bleachers used for the crowds at the Apollo 11 launch. Bruce Buckingham, the center's spokes-man, said that although the bleachers were a historic landmark, "unfortunately, they didn't stand the test of time. Hurricanes." And so it is with so much of the space program: old structures buffeted by modern winds.

One day at Kennedy Space Center, one of the flaks, Ken Thornsley, gave me a tour of Discovery, docked in Orbiter Processing Facility No. 3. When I walked inside, the spaceship (the "orbiter") was hidden behind scaffolding, pipes, cables, tubes, ducts, girders and whatnot. It was like a patient in the ICU. Even when I walked beneath it, admiring its wide, smooth, black belly, I couldn't really see it. The scaffolding rolled in from the sides of the room to enclose the craft completely. This was an FOD Critical Area -- no Foreign Object Damage allowed. Car keys and coins must stay in the pocket, cell phones are banned outright. I was told that I couldn't ask workers any questions -- even words, apparently, have to be strapped down.

"Customized, custom-built, and you have to have a manufacturer for every part," said Thornsley. Each of the 24,300-odd thermal tiles on the underside of the vehicle has its own identity (such as, "V070-394038-147-008768"). Barely detectable amid the infrastructure was a battalion of about 150 workers, poking and prodding and tweaking the spaceship.

"See the arm sticking down in there?" Thornsley asked. And yes, there near the spaceship's engines -- a human arm. Someone was reaching through a hatch with a tool. Tweaking.

"It's just hard to believe they were able to build this thing," Thornsley said.

And it's hard to believe they'll throw it away. The Vision depends on the termination of the shuttle program in just five years. There are still 28 planned shuttle missions, primarily to deliver components of the space station (though Griffin hopes to restore the canceled Hubble servicing mission). Brett Alexander, who helped write the Vision, said: "Without making the hard choice of retiring the shuttle in 2010, you can have all the vision, all the goal, you want. But you're never going to get there, because you don't have the funds."

But any program that spends close to $5 billion a year has powerful constituents. There's a standing army of shuttle workers. Switching spaceships is politically tricky. Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.) and Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) have major NASA centers in their states and have protested the four-year gap between the shuttle's planned retirement and the projected initial manned flight of the shuttle's replacement in 2014. Nelson told me such a gap could wind up being seven or eight years. There's no guarantee we'll be able to hitchhike into space on, say, a Russian Soyuz rocket. "If there is a hiatus of up to eight years, America could be denied access to space. If we are relying on a Russian vehicle, what's the world going to be like then? You could have Russia and China get together," the senator said.

I told the senator that I hadn't heard anyone mention any possibility of a Russia-China space partnership.

"Course you haven't heard anyone say it," the senator said, "because I'm the one who just said it!"

Griffin, NASA's new leader, promises he'll hurry up the development of the shuttle's replacement. But on the shuttle's retirement, he hasn't budged. He's sticking to 2010. The first phase of the Vision is uncompromising: The old spaceship must be put out to pasture.

The Gravity of the Situation

ROBERT PARK, A UNIVERSITY OF MARYLAND PHYSICIST and longtime critic of manned spaceflight (let robots do it, he says), thinks the Vision is really a "poison pill." It's an attempt, he suspects, to create a spaceflight agenda that's so expensive that the next administration will kill it and get the blame for nixing our long-promised journey to the stars.

"They know that manned spaceflight is just about at an end," Park said. "There's just about no place else to go. It's too expensive; it's too dangerous."

Park might be on the pessimistic end of the spectrum, but he touches on some undeniable truths. We've already landed on the moon six times with a dozen people. Mars is never closer than 35 million miles, and needless to say it's a moving target, so any trip there is a real hike. Venus is an oven, hot enough to liquefy a spaceship. Jupiter's nifty moons are ridiculously distant and immersed in lethal Jovian radiation. The solar system is full of toxic, frozen, sterile worlds, and beyond the solar system you've got a whole lot of nothin' before you reach the next star (26 trillion miles away, if that means anything to you).

If that isn't discouraging enough, "empty space" is shot through with particles racing from the sun and the outer reaches of the galaxy. Space can fry a person. On the surface of Earth we're under a protective blanket of sorts, the planet's magnetic field, but in interplanetary space, you're on your own. You need SPF 1,000,000.

Just getting something into orbit is no easy feat. You need to go 17,000 mph to reach orbital velocity. Worse, you then have to find a way to return to Earth and come to a stop. Consider this description of spaceflight in the Columbia Accident Investigation Report:

"There is great risk in placing human beings atop a machine that stores and then burns millions of pounds of dangerous propellants. Equally risky is having humans then ride the machine back to Earth while it dissipates the orbital speed by converting the energy into heat, much like a meteor entering Earth's atmosphere."

Those two sentences summarize the two shuttle disasters. In 1986, an O-ring on one of Challenger's solid rocket boosters failed during the fiery ascent, and led to an explosion. Two years ago, a breach in a protective panel allowed the heat of Columbia's reentry to penetrate the spacecraft.

The laws of physics never go away, as the president's science adviser, John Marburger, is quick to point out. Marburger helped craft the Vision and sell it to President Bush. Marburger doesn't talk about the "final frontier," "man's destiny," etc. He's a physicist, someone who looks as though he could translate any question into a mathematical equation. He's rather gravity-obsessed.

"When you go anywhere else in space, you have to climb a hill thousands of times bigger than anything anyone has ever seen," he said. "We have to go back to this law of nature that says gravity exists. You've got to worry about gravity. Part of the Vision is an all-out attack on gravity."

And that, he said, means using the moon. The moon has "mass," Marburger said in physics-speak. It has soil, rocks, raw materials that could be converted to fuel or used to build satellites and spaceships. The moon's gravity is one-sixth the Earth's. Moon stuff has a small hill to climb.

He's confounded by the misperception of the Vision as a program built around destinations (the moon! Mars!), which he describes as Apollo-style thinking. The Vision is not about sending people to exotic locations. It's about making the solar system part of our "economic zone." It's about making it possible to use space.

But here's where Bush put his stamp on the Vision. When Marburger took the work of all those White House staffers and presented it to Bush, the president sensed that it was ultimately a plan to go to Mars. So, let's say so, Bush said. Let's be specific. And thus the final version of the Vision has a red planet glowing at its center.

Human Destiny

SOME DREAMERS HOPE SPACEFLIGHT CAN BECOME LIKE COMMERCIAL AVIATION: no longer exotic. Jetliners are buses. No one declares that it is "man's destiny" to fly in airplanes.

The promoters of the space program argue that it has all kinds of practical applications. The deputy director of the Kennedy Space Center, Woodrow Whitlow, told me, "It's no accident that there's only one manufacturing industry in America that has a positive balance of trade, and that's aerospace." Whitlow leaves the impression that spaceships are really experiments on behalf of airplanes.

But selling space exploration as pragmatic and sensible might be a strategic mistake. Maybe the greatest attribute of space travel is that it is exotic, dangerous and beautiful. When Bush announced the Vision, he invoked Lewis and Clark, and said, "We've undertaken space travel because the desire to explore and understand is part of our character." Space buffs claim that the moment a society ceases to expand, it's doomed. Brett Alexander said, "If you're not moving forward, you're either moving backward, or stagnating and dying as a civilization."

Tourists don't go to the Kennedy Space Center to hear about robots going into space or commercial applications of spaceflight. They go because brave human beings got on top of really dangerous rockets and let themselves get blasted off Earth.

"We need to get off the planet," George Essig, 63, an assembler in a semiconductor factory in New Hampshire, told me in the visitor center's rocket garden. "We've overpopulated the planet. We need to get out into the stars."

Jason Plew, 26, an electrical engineer from nearby Palm Bay, Fla., said, "Our destiny is to move out into the solar system and beyond."

At the new memorial to fallen astronauts -- a curving black slab with names that glow in the Florida sunshine -- Karen Mullen, 57, a middle school teacher from West Lafayette, Ind., said she grew up with the assumption that she'd someday live in a space colony.

"I thought we'd be going up to the moon and back," she said, "that it would be just like going to Florida."

Her husband, Jim, 55, said somberly, "The kids don't have the dream that we grew up with."

The dream! President Kennedy in 1962 made a memorable statement -- that we choose to go to the moon not because it is easy but because it is hard. That was the spirit of the age: Do the hard stuff. (Big stuff, precise stuff.) Rocket pioneer Wernher Von Braun once drew up plans for a fleet of spaceships that would take 70 astronauts to Mars. Apollo's success made almost anything seem possible. It could happen, and it would happen. It was destiny.

During my reporting, I came across many people like Kenneth Visser, a professor at Clarkson University in Potsdam, N.Y., who works on advanced spaceflight concepts, and who remembers the night his father plunked him in front of a TV and said, "They're going to walk on the moon." Armstrong and Aldrin touched his soul. He became infatuated with the idea of flying in space.

He would tell his younger brother, "I've got to do my daily astronaut training." He demanded that his brother jump on his chest, to simulate the G-forces of a rocket launch. Sometimes he would go outside into the subzero air of Alberta, wearing only a T-shirt. He would take scalding showers. He readied his body for the rigors of life in space.

He felt the dream in his bones.

The Tycoon

THE VISIONARIES INCREASINGLY SUSPECT that they'll have to make a go of it on their own. There are countless entrepreneurs who, like the early pioneers of the West, aren't going to wait for government permission to explore the wilderness.

Last fall, the first privately funded spacecraft, SpaceShipOne, blasted into suborbital space and came safely home, earning designer Burt Rutan the $10 million Ansari X Prize. Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen backed Rutan's venture. Robert Bigelow, billionaire founder of Budget Suites of America, has poured millions into a plan to launch an inflatable orbital hotel. Amazon.com's Jeff Bezos is getting into the launch business.

The government didn't create the commercial aviation industry (though federal contracts to carry mail primed the pump). Private individuals turned an experimental, half-crazy technology, the sport of barnstormers, into something that ordinary people could use routinely. But the Cold War made spaceflight the province of huge government agencies in the United States and the Soviet Union. Critics say NASA has become just another self-perpetuating government bureaucracy.

"NASA, 25, 30 years ago, when Apollo was over, became a jobs program. I call it a self-licking ice cream cone," said Simon Worden, a University of Arizona astrophysicist and retired Air Force general. "The guys who have the right stuff are these billionaires who do it themselves. These are guys who grew up with 'Star Trek' and 'Star Wars.'"

One day recently a young man named Elon Musk came to Howard County to talk at a space symposium about his plans to help humankind become a spacefaring civilization. Musk is 33 years old, South African, and an Internet tycoon, having co-founded PayPal, which he sold recently for a handsome sum. He now runs a small rocketry company called SpaceX, which already has four contracts to launch payloads into orbit. He is hoping for some NASA business at some point.

He said that if he tries three times and the rockets blow up every time or fail to reach orbit, he'll quit. He's spending a lot of money. "I was trying to find the fastest way to turn a large fortune into a small one," he said. "I thought the rocket business was perfect."

We spoke in a hotel lobby and discussed the fate of civilization. Musk would like to go to Mars. He thinks life on Mars would be like Canada in winter. He said it'd be a bit like living in the hotel lobby. He gestures to the large glass windows. You'd be indoors, he said, but you could look outside. He paused, and then said that, of course, there wouldn't be plants and trees out there.

"Do you want us to be forever Earthbound, or do you want us to be a civilization that explores the stars?" he asked. The latter, he said, "is an immensely more exciting future."

Musk said he's not giving up on Earth. He does think there are threats to human civilization, both self-made (nuclear war, environmental disaster) and natural (asteroids, killer microbes, etc.). But the bottom line is that life as a spacefaring civilization would be a good thing. It's a fundamental value, he said. "Do you think it is important to believe in God?" Space is almost a faith, a religion.

Space is almost like . . . Heaven.

The Can-Do Spirit

THE ULTIMATE DRIVER of the space program is gumption, the can-do spirit. The space community, for all its troubles, still knows how to walk and chew gum at the same time -- in orbit.

The robotic space program is on a tremendous roll. The spacecraft Cassini has had a spectacular encounter with Saturn and its intriguing moon Titan. On Mars, two rovers are still rolling along, poking into craters. Space technology works. NASA scientist James Garvin said he and his colleagues have the same thought: "Oh, my god, we can do these things!"

One day in Houston, I met astronaut Franklin Chang-Diaz, who has flown in space seven times (the all-time record, shared with astronaut Jerry Ross) and more recently has designed a newfangled rocket. It looks like a giant ray gun, sprouting pipes that turn frosty from the chilled liquid nitrogen inside. Superconducting magnets concentrate particles into a beam that blasts out the back of the engine.

"The performance of a rocket like this is 60 times better than the best chemical rocket today," he said. It's so fast, this rocket, that it's overkill to use it to go to the moon, he said. The trip would only take a matter of hours. This is for exploring the solar system. Mars would take less than three months.

As we spoke, a strange buzzing noise filled the laboratory. It was from a busted light fixture.

"That stupid light," Chang-Diaz grumbled. "Sometimes even we here at NASA can't get our [act] together."

One of the best places to immerse yourself in space dreams is at the NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts, which operates out of a building in Atlanta. The first thing you see on the poster outside the annual conference is a slogan: "Don't Let Your Preoccupation With Reality Stifle Your Imagination." Just go crazy, people. NIAC is the last stop on the tramway before you reach science fiction. The meeting is held in an auditorium with two enormous screens that would be the envy of Kirk and Spock on the bridge of the Enterprise.

The institute ponders ideas that might take up to 40 years to achieve. The folks here talk, for example, about a spacecraft magnetically embedded in a 20-mile-diameter plasma bubble. The solar wind -- high-energy particles that constantly stream from the surface of the sun -- would push on the plasma bubble and accelerate it. The only objection one might make, sitting in the back of the hall, is that it's never gonna happen.

NIAC has funded research on tethers. A tether is a kind of pole that's about, let's see, 150 miles from end to end. The whole tether is in orbit, spinning like a Ferris wheel. The idea is, you somehow get yourself most of the way to outer space, perhaps 100 miles up, and then latch onto one end of the tether at the bottom of its revolution, riding it like a carnival attraction into a higher orbit.

Wild! But not as crazy as it sounds, if you ask NIAC director Robert Cassanova, who presided over the meeting with professorial calm. These kinds of ideas get funding, and, more importantly, they generate other ideas, inspire people, get the cognitive wheels spinning. "The near-term inspiration that's provided by these concepts is just as important as the far-term goal," Cassanova said.

A favorite at NIAC is the space elevator. Forget rocketry. Forget chemical reactions, fire, smoke, chaos. The space elevator is a very long cable or ribbon -- made out of carbon nanofibers so strong that they haven't actually been invented yet -- that starts on the ground and rises and rises and rises and eventually pokes above the stratosphere and then keeps going, up and up and up for something like 62,000 miles, a thing that just boggles your mind. The cargo crawls its way into space, as though it were on a dumbwaiter.

At the conference, the space elevator pioneer Jerome Pearson gave a humdinger of a presentation. He stipulated that a key problem with the elevator is space junk. Space is full of debris from half a century of satellites and shuttles. "You've either got to clean up space or move the elevator to avoid the debris," he said. But we could build a lunar space elevator, Pearson said. It would cost about $10 billion by his calculation. The raw material for building the upper reaches of the lunar elevator could be hurled into space from the moon using a giant sling with arms 80 miles long. "We can throw the material from the moon up to L1 to build the counterweight," he said. Never mind what L1 is, the point is we can do these things. He has also designed something he calls the catenary, a series of 1-kilometer-tall towers that can be strung with wires that would transport ice from the poles of the moon toward the lunar equator. He showed a slide of a two-person crew cab, riding along the catenary as though it were the old Sky Ride at the Magic Kingdom.

I said to the guy next to me, "This sounds kind of futuristic."

He said, "It's NIAC."

One NIAC speaker, Robert Winglee of the University of Washington, presented his research on the idea of a "mag beam," a kind of spaceship that rides a beam of energy and could reach Mars in just 50 days so long as there was some kind of reflector on the moon Phobos to slow the dang thing down before it crashed into something.

"You could do an interstellar probe with this," he told the crowd. "That thing is going to rock!"

I later asked Winglee if any of this could really happen.

"I know that we can do this," he said. "It's frustrating knowing I can do this but not having the resources to do it. It's all good physics."

You wouldn't want to underestimate good physics. Scientists have given us technologies that in a previous era would have been viewed as magic. But, for now, it's still just fancy images on two jumbo screens in an auditorium. We can see that starship beaming toward Mars, but we're still in Atlanta.

A Large Universe

WHY IS THE DREAM SO POWERFUL?

Maybe because space is so big. Perhaps the most dramatic discovery in the annals of science, more mind-boggling than evolution, is the scale of the universe. Just the galaxy we live in has at least 100 billion stars, and there are billions of such galaxies. Every space buff can cite the Carl Sagan riff about the surface of Earth being the "shore of the cosmic ocean."

We know we can, in theory, journey to other worlds. Twelve people have already walked on the freakin' moon.

But a vision isn't enough. At some point you have to light the rocket -- and maybe, even before then, figure out exactly why you want to do this thing.

One reason is touchy-feely, but it's still a good one: Space travel unites the human family. Our disputes are so obviously petty in the cosmic scheme of things. Earth is a pale blue dot, beautiful but fragile. We're all in this together. You know this tune; maybe you've heard it too much, but it's still a classic.

There's another pretty decent reason for human space exploration that is cited by the Vision but doesn't get a lot of press: Astronauts might be able to help solve the mystery of life itself. We have never found life beyond Earth. We don't know if life is common or rare or even unique to Earth. We don't know if life routinely evolves into complex organisms. We don't know if there are others out there who stare into the night sky and try to decode the meaning of their existence. NASA scientist Eileen Stansbery says, "People really are interested in the basic big questions of who we are, why are we here, and how did we get to where we are."

The moon, the asteroids, the moons of Jupiter and certainly Mars might have clues to these questions. Robots and telescopes can do a lot, but an explorer on Mars (and we're just putting the dollar cost right out of our minds here) could deploy the marvelous scientific instruments known as the hands, eyes and brain.

In the meantime, space will continue to beckon, and taunt us, and mystify us. It will inspire the dreams and visions of billionaires and inventors and rocket scientists and little kids with plastic ray guns.

Don't tell them that you can't get there from here.

Joel Achenbach is a Magazine staff writer. He will be fielding questions and comments about this article Monday at 1 p.m. at washingtonpost.com/liveonline.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company