Sun, Jan 11, 2004 - Page 7 News List

Houston buzzing with moon-and-Mars mania

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , HOUSTON

Chris Kraft was ecstatic over the moon, but he wasn't too sure about Mars. To the moon and back was six days. Mars you had to figure almost two years.

"It's right and rational to go back to the moon," said Kraft, 79, NASA's director of flight operations through the heady days of Apollo. "[On] Mars, if you go with humans, you need large robotic machines."

Space City, as Houston proudly styles itself for its Johnson Space Center that controls human missions, was abuzz Friday over reports that President George W. Bush was about to announce a major step-up in the struggling space program.

Some saw it as a shrewd trial balloon, others wondered what would be shortchanged. But many voiced elation. "It's great," said the new mayor, Bill White, who saw an opportunity to boost science education for youngsters and dispel some of the grimmer news here lately, from the breakup of the space shuttle Columbia last February to the Enron debacle.

Coming on top of NASA's transmissions of riveting color photos from Mars, the accounts stirred a kind of moon-and-Mars mania from Cape Canaveral to other centers of aeronautics and science.

Some said the National Aeronautics and Space Administration needed a bold new stroke to dispel the specter of Columbia and other setbacks. "I have friends that want to be astronauts," said Charlie Fox, an undergraduate engineering student at the University of Minnesota in Duluth and a founding member of the Mars Society there. "But they don't want to be astronauts if we continue what we've been doing in recent years. They want to go to the moon. They want to go somewhere else."

The eagerness may be even greater here. And why not? Houston, after all, was the first word broadcast from the moon. ("Houston, Tranquillity Base here, the Eagle has landed.") Sports teams carry names like the Astros, the Rockets, the Aeros and the Comets and play (or used to) in the Astrodome. It was here in a speech at Rice University in 1962 that President John F. Kennedy told Americans: "We choose to go to the moon."

So the retired aerospace workers who guide some 1,500 visitors a day through the space center walked a little taller on Friday. Astronauts, active and retired, traded phone calls wondering what the news held in store for them and the nation.

Kraft said he spoke to Walter Cunningham, pilot on the Apollo 7 mission in 1968, a year before the moon landing. They argued politely.

"He wants to go to Mars," said Kraft. "He didn't think going back to the moon was necessary."

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