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Joe Skipper, Reuters
Space shuttle Columbia lifts off from Kennedy Space Center in 2002 en route to the Hubble telescope.

The other night, former senator and astronaut Jake Garn was moving around so much in his sleep that his wife woke him.

He explained that in his dream, he was skiing on Mars.

Kathleen Garn asked, "How did you get your skis there?"

"I said, 'Honey, I don't know. The dream didn't answer that.' "

What the dream did show was how much the former astronaut loves space exploration as well as skiing.

On the 25th anniversary of the first shuttle flight, Garn and other Utah space experts took a moment to look into the future of human exploration of the cosmos. They remain convinced of the importance of humans in space. And though they differ on their outlook of the space program, some agree that venturing into the unknown of space can't be avoided.

"Human beings have it in our psyche. Buried somewhere in our psyche is the urge to explore," said Patrick Wiggins, a NASA solar system ambassador to Utah. Exploration is "just something we do, and we will continue to do it as long as humans continue to be curious."

The space shuttle's quarter-century anniversary, coincidently, is the 21st anniversary of Garn's own flight into orbit aboard Space Shuttle Discovery (April 12-19, 1985).

"I'd rather talk about space than anything else," Garn said.

He bristled at the idea that the shuttle hasn't lived up to expectations. Any shortcomings can be blamed on a lack of funding and a "lack of leadership in the various (presidential) administrations," he said.

"They just have not provided adequate funding in order for it to reach the potential that I believe it should have."

NASA's budget is only seven-tenths of 1 percent of federal spending, he said. Although it's larger in dollar figures than when he left the Senate 13 years ago, when inflation is factored in "it's about the same," Garn said.

Meanwhile, he feels certain the International Space Station should be completed. It's like having a house that is only partly constructed, he said.

"In my opinion, the space program is way behind where it could have been if we had funded these initiatives properly," Garn added.

America never wasted a dime in space, he insists. All the money for these projects has been spent on Earth, with Utah a great beneficiary because of the presence of ATK, builder of the shuttle's solid rocket boosters.

If he had his druthers the country would first finish the space station, "and then my next objective would be to go back to the moon."

Utah's other astronaut, Don Lind — who went into orbit aboard Space Shuttle Challenger in 1985 — says he firmly backs President Bush's "plan to phase out the shuttle, finish out our treaty obligations on the International Space Station . . . as fast as we can, so that we return to the moon."

Humans should go to Mars "at an appropriate time," he said.

Lind is encouraged by a recent report on exercises that may prevent calcium loss on long spaceflights, such as a trip to Mars. On his own flight, he lost 4 percent of the structural mass of his bones, and it did not come back.

If the news about exercise proves true, it would be a big step forward, he said.

"I think the public does not support the space program the way we did when we first went to the moon," Lind added.

During the Cold War, the space race was a sort of substitute for thermonuclear warfare, and it generated great interest. "Now," Lind said, "the public has taken the attitude, 'Ah, been there, done that, who cares?' "

He cares, for one. He recited a list of technological advances that resulted from the space race, from advanced fabrics to miniaturized electronics.

Asked how he feels about the program's future, Lind said, "Pessimistic."

George Torres, spokesman for ATK Launch Systems — which builds America's space shuttle engines at its plant near Brigham City — said the company's employees are optimistic about the future.

"They're excited about the president's new plans to return to the moon and then go on to Mars after that," he said. ATK has "a major role in that."

The company has begun working on the new Crew Launch Vehicle for the next generation of human exploration of space. "We are doing some initial studies on how we can use the shuttle's solid rocket boosters and transition those into the new Crew Launch Vehicle," he said.

NASA has announced it wants to begin at least test flights by 2010, and send astronauts into space aboard it by 2014. "But their goal is to do that sooner," maybe by 2012 or '13.

A return to the moon is "imminently possible," Torres said. The new vehicle will be twice as large as the Apollo capsules that took astronauts there in the 1960s and early '70s.

It should allow a crew of six to stay on the moon two weeks at a time.

Will humans eventually go to Mars? "I certainly hope so," Torres said. "And that is the goal that the president has set."

There are practical reasons for going to the moon, like setting up telescopes far from earthly lights, he said. And it's in our DNA to explore, he added.

"In realistic terms, in the 22nd century, people will look back and these will be like the baby steps," Torres said. "I would say we're building a foundation for greater exploration of the solar system and beyond."

Wiggins, an enthusiastic amateur astronomer, has no doubt that humankind will leave Earth someday.

"Human exploration of space . . . whether you like the idea or you don't like the idea, it's going to happen," he said. Going into farther space may take longer or be more expensive than some would like. "But it's going to happen."

E-mail: bau@desnews.com