Roger Launius, curator of the National Air and Space Museum, says NASA has failed to inform, much less convince, Americans of the need for Constellation, whose mission President Bush announced in January 2004. "Just take a poll. Stand out on a street corner and ask people as they walk by, do they know we're going to the moon? And do they know why?" he asks. "A lot of people would say, 'Been there, done that.'"

NASA has set no firm date for the ultimate Mars feat. "Until then, it's kind of our jobs to keep people interested," says Louis Parker, the exhibits manager at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. Parker says he's trying to infuse his traveling shows with more information about Constellation. "We're trying to get the word out to folks that this is the new program on the horizon."

Anticipating a "very tedious, very expensive" road to Mars, Parker says, "We need more people like this Mr. Mullins. If it turns out this museum is his own private collection, well, great."

On July 12 the sixth man to walk on the moon, Edgar Mitchell, is planning to visit Bonne Terre, the town whose name is French for "good earth." Mullins is so wound up about Mitchell's coming that he sent a letter of invitation to President George Bush. Traveling from his home in Florida, the 77-year-old retired astronaut will see the museum and make a presentation in the municipal auditorium about the long-term sustainability of life on Earth.

"Space exploration and using resources from other planets are possibilities for us," says Mitchell by telephone during a recent interview. "We need to think beyond the confines of Earth."

Weeks before the big day, Mullins batted around ideas for the speech he planned to deliver at Mitchell's honorary dinner. He wonders, "Can middle America make a difference? Can some wild-eyed space geek make a difference?" Then he thought of all the great names in space exploration who hail from small towns: Gus Grissom from Mitchell, Indiana; Neil Armstrong from Wapakoneta, Ohio; Edwin Hubble from Marshfield, Missouri; Chuck Yeager from Myra, West Virginia.

"Do I have a right to put myself in the same category?" Earl Mullins asks. "Maybe not now, but someday."

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