IN FEBRUARY 2001, as Bob Curbeam and I (both Baltimore natives) worked outside the International Space Station, we heard incredible news from Mission Control: a robot spacecraft controlled from Columbia, Md., had made the first landing on an asteroid.
As I gripped the silvery hull of the station's Destiny lab, I tried to imagine myself on the dusty surface of Eros, that Manhattan-sized chunk of planetary rubble. How soon would human explorers follow the trail blazed by NASA's NEAR Shoemaker probe?
Three years later, we may be on the verge of answering that question. Spurred by the loss of seven astronauts on the space shuttle Columbia, the Bush administration seems intent on setting America's future course in space.
Much of the government's internal debate, along with parallel hearings in Congress, has focused on destinations. Should we head back to the moon, explore nearby asteroids or undertake years-long voyages to Mars? My experience tells me that where we go is less important than clearly explaining why we are going. Our next challenge in space must once again engage Americans and reinforce their hopes for a brighter future.
The Apollo program, President John F. Kennedy's crash initiative to beat the Russians to the moon, was understood by every American as a highly visible Cold War demonstration of our nation's technological superiority.
Why should we venture beyond the space station? Because an ambitious space program will yield new knowledge, reap commercial and economic benefits and protect our planet.
The moon and the asteroids harbor ancient materials in their rocks and minerals that will help us unravel the story of Earth's formation and evolution. The history of life on Earth has been dramatically altered by comet and asteroid impacts, a record of cosmic violence preserved on these planetary neighbors.
We could harvest the vast amounts of solar energy streaming past the moon and Earth. Using satellites or lunar outposts constantly bathed in sunshine, we have the technology to beam that power here to replace Earth's dwindling supplies of fossil fuels. Commercial power companies could deliver solar energy worldwide, free of political instability and transportation bottlenecks.
The technology used to explore the moon also will carry us to the Earth-approaching asteroids. By visiting these mountain-sized objects on voyages lasting a few months, we will develop reliable methods for diverting any object discovered on a collision course with Earth. We'll be taking out a cosmic insurance policy, a hedge against the impact catastrophe that is said to have wiped out the dinosaurs. Space exploration is the most basic form of homeland security.
Any road map to a new space goal must contain some essential stepping stones:
Finish the space station to test the technologies needed to keep astronauts healthy and productive during long space voyages.
Begin work on the space shuttle's replacement, retire the orbiter within 10 years and build a new booster rocket.
Build a reusable space cruiser that can carry astronauts or cargo among Earth orbit, the moon and nearby asteroids. Within seven years of the go-ahead, we should test this ship on trips to lunar orbit and then on round trips to the most intriguing asteroids. We should conduct the first tests of power-beaming technology from space to Earth.
Using information from our robot explorers and the experience gained in Earth-moon space, we should commit to establishing a permanent outpost on Mars. Our search for life elsewhere in our solar system can then begin in earnest.
Using the best talent from government, industry and academia, a reorganized and revitalized NASA can make measurable progress toward leaving Earth orbit within five years. And we must challenge ourselves to do it with just a 33 percent increase in NASA's budget, about an extra $5 billion a year. In a nation with an annual budget of $2.2 trillion, Americans together should be able to agree on investing a little less than 1 percent of federal spending on our future prosperity.
We explore first because we are human. Americans also understand that the frontier means opportunity. Our efforts to live in space, to unlock its secrets, to exploit its resources of energy -- all inspire the scientists and explorers of tomorrow.
I flew in space because the moon race came to my hometown of Baltimore. My neighbors, working at Martin's Middle River factory, built the Titan rockets that helped America reach the moon. Apollo's moonwalkers thus sparked a young man's imagination.
Now in this second century of flight, we should lay out a new challenge for ourselves and our young people, to reach again for the planets and the stars beyond.
Thomas D. Jones, a space scientist, author and speaker, flew on four space shuttle missions, working for nearly 53 days in Earth orbit. He lives in Oakton, Va.