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Celebrate past and future Moondays

It's been 41 years since that first "giant leap" to the lunar surface - a feat that stands as humanity's farthest and arguably greatest voyage ever made. When will astronauts next land on the moon? Will they ever?

That goal may seem farther away now than it was last year, due to the White House's decision to revise America's vision for human space exploration and leave lunar landings off the to-do list. But maybe that's the wrong impression. Maybe the step-by-step approach that is taking shape in Congress, at the White House and within NASA will bring the moon - and other destinations beyond Earth - more surely within our grasp.

That's an optimistic view. But the space effort needs a little optimism, in light of what's happened since last year's 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. The back-to-the-moon initiative begun five years ago was canceled after an independent panel found that it was unworkable given current budget constraints. A new initiative for human spaceflight was drawn up, targeting a yet-to-be-named asteroid in 2025 and eventually Mars and its moons - but forgoing a return to our own moon, based on a "been there, done that" rationale. The new initiative is now being dramatically tweaked by lawmakers, extending the period of uncertainty for the space agency.

All that could make for a gloomy 41st anniversary. But I'm going with an optimistic spin: The important thing to do at this point is to settle on a way forward, and shift the debate from arguing over the destination (the moon? Mars? asteroid?) to building the ships capable of going anyplace beyond Earth orbit.

The spaceships that existed in 1969 were designed for a single purpose: to send humans to the moon and return them safely to Earth. Once the Apollo program ended, NASA had to start from scratch with the design for the space shuttles, which have been in operation for nearly 30 years. Now that the shuttle era is nearing its end, the smart thing to do is to take what can be adapted from that era and build a space launch system that can take the next giant leaps - to an asteroid, to Mars, and yes, even the moon.

It looks as if that's the flexible path that Congress, NASA and the White House are settling on. Can spaceflight companies ranging from the Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin to SpaceX and Bigelow Aerospace make it happen? The signs are encouraging.

Just this week, Boeing and Bigelow detailed their plans for a plug-and-play space station system. It's not hard to imagine that such a station could serve as the assembly point for spacecraft that could head toward the moon or Mars. After all, the inflatable spaceship design now being tested by Bigelow started out as a NASA concept for a Mars transport vehicle. Other innovative designs will surely emerge ... if the will and the wherewithal are available.

The will and the wherewithal are key factors: Will America's leaders keep a straight course on the path to the next frontier? Will taxpayers go along? Can international cooperation be as much a motivator in the 21st century as international competition was in the 1960s? The answers to those questions are hazier.

As robotic spacecraft send back more data about the moon, Mars, asteroids and other faraway places, the reasons for reaching out will become clearer. There could be valuable resources to extract, or deep questions to answer, or new territory to settle. Of course, we could decide that none of those reasons is worth the trip. We could be stuck on this rock until we go extinct. But on this Moonday, I choose to be optimistic. How about you?

Update for 11:55 p.m. ET: One more development is detracting from the optimism ... the House Science Committee's draft authorization bill for NASA, which is due for markup on Thursday. In two important areas, the development of commercial spaceships for reaching low Earth orbit and support for suborbital research using passenger-worthy craft, the draft bill undercuts the compromise worked out by the Senate with the White House's assent.

The bill seems to be intended to make things as hard as possible for companies such as Boeing and SpaceX to get a toehold in the business of resupplying the International Space Station or flying research payloads on quick suborbital trips. Such opportunities are key to opening up wider access to space - much as government airmail-delivery contracts were key to kick-starting commercial aviation in the 1920s.

Check out Space Transport News, NASA Watch, Space Politics and QuantumG's Blog for more on the House committee's draft. Today, Apollo astronauts Neil Armstrong, Gene Cernan and Jim Lovell said they favored either the House or the Senate version, while a statement from SpaceX voiced strong support for the Senate version. This Wall Street Journal commentary suggests that both versions are letdowns.

Although the legislative process has a long way to go, it's not too early to tell your members of Congress what you think. As I said before, it all comes down to will and wherewithal. Are you willing to stand up for the space vision you believe in, and follow through on your convictions with your votes and your tax dollars?

More from msnbc.com about Apollo 11 and its meaning:

More from the Web for your Moonday meditations:

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