In 1969, as a freshly-minted seven-year-old, I was awakened in the middle of the night by my parents to join the entire world as a witness to history. At 10:55 p.m. (EST), a grainy, black-and-white transmission on the television showed Neil Armstrong stepping off the lunar module Eagle onto the surface of the moon.

Thus, the challenge issued by President John F. Kennedy on May 25, 1961, of “landing a man on the moon and return him safely to Earth” was well on its way to being met.

Those heady days quickly disappeared into history as the tragedy of Richard Nixon, the humiliation of Vietnam, the economic malaise of the OPEC-engineered oil crisis, and the “Me Generation” wreaked their havoc upon the national consciousness and wallet.

The Apollo program fell victim to the budget axe in the mid-1970s to make way for the space shuttle and Skylab programs, and that was that.

Earlier this month, The Eye was surprised to learn that NASA was announcing its plans to build a permanent base on the Moon as a stepping stone to eventual manned exploration of Mars (the new space brass ring).

NASA, responding to President George W. Bush’s 2004 announcement to send somebody back to the moon by 2020, said it would establish an international lunar base to be permanently staffed by 2024.

This announcement was closely followed by news that the Mars Global Surveyor had ceased to chirp back information to Earth and was presumed to be dead in orbit.

The surveyor had beamed back more evidence of water on Mars and was working with three other orbiters and two rovers on the Red Planet’s surface. The science people are all excited about this, but plans to bring a chunk of Mars back to Earth for study have been forced to the middle of the next decade due to budget constraints.

In 2005, NASA said it would cost $104 billion for the initial lunar return flight but didn’t mention the cost of follow-up flights or construction costs of the base itself.

The Government Accounting Office estimates that NASA’s plans through 2025 would reach $230 billion.

When this number is put next to the estimated $300 billion the current president has blown on Iraq in five years, $230 billion seems like a small amount.

Kinda like chump change, noted The Eye, who also noticed an absence of stated goals for the moon base and beyond, other than going to Mars, with NASA Administrator Michael Griffin saying that if future scientists weren’t interested in maintaining the lunar base, “then we’ll move on more rapidly to Mars.”

The Eye thinks that Griffin is simply trying to figure out a way to return to the unlimited financing days of the Apollo program.

The Eye is of the opinion that a national dialogue needs to occur about America’s space program and its lofty public relations goal of spreading civilization throughout the universe, because we don’t seem to be doing such a great job of spreading civilization here on Earth.

Why should we go back to the moon and then on to Mars? Nobody’s answering.

Griffin himself seemed to have no shortage of NASA’s well-documented insular thinking, “We’re rebuilding systems that we had 40 years ago and that we built at that time and then discarded … That was not a NASA mistake. It was a policy mistake at the highest level of the U.S. government … My generation now has the task before it of fixing that mistake.”

That sounds to The Eye like the hubris that got the Challenger and later the Columbia blown to bits before another assembled crowd of witnesses to history.

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