In the face of the loss of Mars Polar Lander, it is critical that as American citizens we understand our space program--and the risks and rewards that accompany it. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was created in 1958 by President Eisenhower to begin exploration of the outer reaches of space. During the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, Americans were captivated by our race to the moon. And in July 1969, American families sat glued to their television sets to await word of Neil Armstrong's triumphant walk on Earth's closest neighbor.

America has always been a nation of explorers, and we always will be. Beginning with those who first settled this land, to Lewis and Clark, who traveled across the continent, and to the Apollo astronauts who first touched the moon, we now routinely send unmanned spacecraft out beyond the farthest reaches of our solar system. This latest mission to Mars successfully covered more than 450 million miles. Considering that less than a century ago man was flying for a few seconds and yards at a time, our advances to date are breathtaking.

Since we, as a nation watched in awe on July 4, 1997, when the Mars Pathfinder sent back pictures from the Martian surface, there has been a dramatic increase in the excitement and anticipation of further exploration of the Red Planet among the American public. It is this wonder-filled excitement and anticipation that makes the recent failures of the Mars Climate Orbiter and the Mars Polar Lander missions all the more disappointing.

Since the early 1990s, NASA has employed the mantra "faster, better, cheaper." In the case of Mars exploration, NASA sought to diversify risk among multiple spacecraft that would each remain focused on a few key tasks. The collective data among the multiple spacecraft--each costing only a fraction of one of NASA's traditional large spacecraft--would yield at least as much, if not much more, information as obtained on a single Voyager- or Galileo-class mission. This concept allows the loss of one or more of these vehicles without jeopardizing the entire mission to Mars, as opposed to the loss of a single spacecraft costing billions of dollars, which would mean a total loss of the mission. As an added benefit, these smaller, more frequent missions also enable NASA to employ the most advanced technology on each mission.

Even in loss, this mission continues to lay the groundwork for the first human steps on Mars. The robotic Mars exploration missions planned in the next few years will provide us with essential data on the terrain, the atmosphere and Martian natural resources that future human explorers will encounter.

While some government agencies have seen their budgets increased dramatically, NASA has been forced to produce more missions while receiving less funding. In terms of real dollars, NASA's funding is half what it was at its peak in the mid-1960s; NASA's appropriation hasn't even kept up with the rate of inflation over the past seven years. Although these reductions are not the sole reason for the failures, I have to wonder if budget concerns were at least indirectly responsible for the loss of the two Mars missions. Are we being penny wise and pound foolish?

I am committed to continuing to fight for a stable and growing NASA budget so that we as a nation can continue in a proud tradition of exploring the unknown and daring to take risks. It is ultimately our destiny to explore space and our neighboring planets. Setbacks are all a part of that progress. The Mars Polar Lander will not be remembered for what it did, but rather how we responded to it.

The writer, a Republican representative from Florida, is vice chairman of the science subcommittee on space and aeronautics.