President George W. Bush could have thought it a standard election-year promise not meant to be kept, but when he announced his plan to “extend a human presence across our solar system” in 2004, would-be space explorers nationwide perked up at the idea. TIME’s cover story focused on all the ways it was possible to get the U.S. back in the space game.
Having rung the Mars bell, however, the current Bush Administration may find it’s not possible to unring it. Even if it’s true that the President’s announcement was nothing more than a bit of election-year candy, it’s getting some very serious attention from some very smart people. Mars, they’re concluding, is not out of reach for human beings–and it need not take decades to get there. Indeed, there may be any number of possible routes to the Red Planet that could, some say, have boots on the soil in as few as 10 years. All that’s needed is the commitment to go–and the institutional maturity to see that commitment through.