WASHINGTON — The U.S. space program, struggling for two decades to lay down a compelling case for exploring the universe, is suddenly riding the crest of extraordinary public and political enthusiasm over the potential discovery of past life on Mars.
In the last two days, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration appears to have struck a chord with the public unparalleled since the era of the moon landings a quarter-century ago. And the normally cautious federal establishment seems to be preparing to reverse course and strengthen the agency.
NASA outlined in detail Wednesday the basis for its belief that a meteorite found in Antarctica came from Mars and contains evidence that life once existed on that planet. But even as NASA officials conceded that the work is still inconclusive and needs more peer review, the news generated waves of excitement.
From members of Congress to the scientific community, the potential discovery has opened sweeping discussions about the origins of life and about the impact that knowledge of life beyond Earth would have on life sciences, biochemistry, geology and even religion.
"It gets to the foundations of beliefs of the human species," NASA Administrator Daniel S. Goldin said in an interview. "The question has always been, is life on Earth unique?"
NASA, which hardly captured the public imagination by touting its contributions to science and industry, could not have found a stronger rationale for its existence than a credible search for extraterrestrial life.
Goldin said that when he briefed 15 leaders in Congress on the Mars finding on Wednesday, he heard more enthusiasm than at any time in the more than four years he has served as NASA chief.
"I have no doubt we are going to Mars," said Rep. Robert S. Walker (R-Pa.), chairman of the House Science Committee. "We have found the most important reason of all for going."
"It will cause a lot of people to support our space program in a big way that may rival what we saw during the moon missions," predicted Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Redlands), chairman of the House appropriations subcommittee that controls the NASA budget.
Lewis predicted that the entire debate over the NASA budget will now take on a much different tone than the long battle over funding for the space station, which critics have attacked as lacking a purpose.
"No doubt there are moral and religious implications in this," Lewis added. "Once the public gets a broader picture, it will look at the space program in a different way."
Louis Friedman, executive director of the Planetary Society, a worldwide space interest group based in Pasadena, said the Mars project caps a startling year in which NASA also has dazzled the public with photos of one of Jupiter's moons and distant solar systems.
Congress had planned to force NASA to take budget cuts of $500 million a year through the turn of the century, undercutting its ability to continue even its current work, Friedman said.
"The Mars report is a major finding, and it will stop the downturn in the NASA budget," Friedman predicted.
Still, Goldin emphasized that he wants to take a cautious approach until the findings are scientifically validated, saying, "The last thing I want is this to be a flimflam story."
Nonetheless, Goldin has trouble keeping a lid on his belief that the discovery appears to be a scientific watershed. NASA will likely move to accelerate by four years its plan to send a robot to Mars in 2005, an effort that would involve the remote collection of rocks and their return to Earth, Goldin said.
Even that ambitious expansion of the space program is not likely to provide the kind of conclusive evidence that scientists seek or to answer the question of whether life exists deep underground on Mars the same way it does on Earth, Goldin said.
"In the end, after we have exhausted our ability to use robots, we will require people," he said. "I don't know how we can drill deep, deep wells and take core samples, do a really thorough job [with robots]. We will probably want to take laboratories with us to do measurements there."
NASA officials have not voiced such expansive thinking for years, reflecting the perception that it was politically unrealistic to even raise the possibilities.
But the level of enthusiasm appears equally high in some congressional quarters.
Going to Mars gives new impetus to the space station program, Walker said, because any mission beyond Earth would require substantial research into life sciences in a zero-gravity environment.
The costs would be staggering. Estimates made in the 1980s of a two-year Mars mission pegged the cost at $400 billion.
Naysayers dismiss the possibility that the public will care enough about life on Mars to support a big new space program. John Pike, a space expert at the Federation of American Scientists, predicted that the finding will ultimately be treated as a one-day photo opportunity for NASA and quickly forgotten by hardened politicians.
But to the true believers, the critics are missing the point that a search for life is a high road that may galvanize the public.
"This is an issue of giving people something to look forward to, pulling Americans together," Goldin said. " . . . In the absence of an enemy, we need things greater than the Super Bowl."
And it ultimately could reinvigorate Southern California--still the world leader in space science and engineering.