Space exploration may yet provide the best shot for George Bush's reputation as president to be rescued from the ash bin of American history.

But it's looking doubtful.

There are those who say future historians will have a much different take on Bush's adventure in Iraq. But the consensus of most Americans today is that he's headed for infamy.

Not necessarily, though. If Bush's map for space exploration actually takes an American crew to Mars, he may one day be hailed the way John Kennedy gets credit now for a moonwalk that occurred years after his assassination.

It was in a May 25, 1961, speech that President Kennedy announced to a special joint session of Congress the goal of sending an American safely to the moon within the decade. Kennedy wasn't around for all of the science and expenditures that made the goal a reality on July 20, 1969.

Bush similarly could one day be remembered for his Jan. 14, 2004, speech at NASA headquarters, in which he announced goals to return to the moon by 2020 and achieve a Mars landing by Americans sometime after that. "We do not know where this journey will end," Bush said. "Yet we do know this: Human beings are headed into the cosmos."

No, the theme from

Star Trek

wasn't playing in the background. And all of the excitement of that day has faded in the last four years, with little occurring since in manned space flight, other than the occasional shuttle trip to haul freight to the space station.

Bush's plan is intact, but it has suffered from paltry NASA budgets that, like everything else in government these days, has been sorely scrunched so that the war beast can be fed.

NASA administrator Michael Griffin, playing the good soldier, has downplayed the budget challenge. "They can give us more money or they can give us less money and we will get there quicker or we will get there slower," he said. "We will get where we need to go."

Maybe. But the next president will have a lot to say about that.

Bush's plan is to retire the space shuttles by 2010, replace them with a new moon ship by 2015, finish outfitting the space station, and work hard on getting to Mars. The cost: $230 billion or more.

Presidential candidates Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John McCain have all mouthed pleasantries about manned space flight, but not one has made a commitment to that much expense.

Kennedy had Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon to follow him and see that his space goal was reached. Bush could have helped steer the course of his successors by better funding NASA. He didn't because that same war that threatens to define his presidency historically got in the way.