2006 Mars Society Conference. I've spent a lot of time reading and simulating and thinking about Mars, and there's no doubt that as a non-Earth destination, Mars is as good as it gets in this particular star system.
So when I read Bob Zubrin's latest essay on why NASA needs a human spaceflight destination, and why that destination needs to be Mars, I want to believe. On some level, I do believe. I was a child of Apollo (and the Beatles) and I probably became an engineer because of it. I was inspired. Developing technologies that will someday be great building blocks for some TBD exploration program (as in the current Obama proposal for NASA) - that's maybe practical, but it's sure not inspirational. Developing a commercial space industry is an essential step in becoming a space-faring civilization, and it will probably create some pretty good high-tech jobs in the USA, but it's probably not inspirational at anywhere near the Apollo level.
On the other hand, Apollo was exceptionally non-sustainable, a proxy-for-war crash program to beat the Soviets to the Moon, and given the political climate and the cost of the Vietnam War, we were damn lucky that we got up to Apollo 17 - I'm sure there were plenty of people in Washington ready to pull the plug as soon as Neil and Buzz splashed down. It surely inspired a lot of people and left a legacy of technology that fueled the US economy for many years. But there's no single threat at the level of the Cold War around which you could build a political consensus for an intense Mars-focused program right now (unless you could somehow show that this would reduce short-term unemployment).
I guess I'm really hoping that the analogies between the early aviation industry and the early commercial space industry will come true. That someone will develop the DC-3 and later the 707 and 747 of commercial space, and that from these developments, the path to Mars (and to the Moon and the asteroids) will become clearer and easier than it is now. But is that a realistic hope? I don't know. Probably not in my lifetime (guess I better work on extending that).
Then there's the whole Lifeboat thing. What if we "sink" this planet? Yeah, I don't know. It's definitely easier to just have a glass of wine and watch American Idol. But I'm trying to avoid that (the Idol part anyway).