WHEN IT COMES TO poetic vision, "Fly Me to the Moon" has it all over "Global Precipitation Mission." But the prosaic and twice-delayed NASA meteorology project would conduct a useful scientific study of Earth weather. A return to the moon is a romantic but expensive mission in search of a purpose.
NASA's announcement last week that it would erect a permanent moon station by 2020 as a sort of scientific way station to Mars was dramatic but not unexpected -- especially not after President Bush gave a speech two years ago calling on the space agency to return astronauts to the moon and from there to Mars. NASA officials enthused about the international partners for the moon project and the savings they would achieve by using existing technologies. What they didn't say is how much it would cost -- and more important, why do it in the first place except to recapture a wrinkled sense of glory.
Even NASA's "Why the Moon?" website doesn't really explain it. It's full of oddly cheerful videos ("We're going back to the moon ... this time to stay!") suggesting that people might like to colonize the moon as a new home (not until the surf's up at the Sea of Tranquillity) and vowing that this will enable new scientific studies, encourage global cooperation and inspire children. These are laudable goals, all of which could be managed without a manned moon station and a 12-figure price tag. The U.S. and India already are working together on an unmanned space mission.