SO NOW WE'RE HEADED for Mars. Forget the moon. Mars is the place to go.

But why?

Hey, we're exploring, we're questing for knowledge, we're searching for signs of life out there. It's science get it?

So every twenty-six months between now and the year 2005 we're going to send machines up there. And 2012 is the target date for landing the first man on Mars.

But I have a question: What happened to the moon?

When I was a kid, back in the sixties, the place to go was the moon. It was the same story: We were exploring, we were questing, we were on our way to answering age-old questions about life and the universe.

So we spent billions of dollars, we brought back some rocks, and then we sent some guys up there.

Great. But why aren't we going back? The way America's space wizards used to tell it, by the year 2000 the moon was going to be a regular tourist stop. We'd have our colonies there. Russians and Americans would be finding peace and friendship on the moon.

The moon! They promised us the moon!

But now, nearly three decades later, the moon is passe. No colonies, no busy little camps of scientists up there, no prospecting for minerals, no military installations, no moon shots, no nothing.

Instead: "Hi ho! Hi ho! It's off to Mars we go." (Price tag: half a trillion dollars.)

There's one person who wouldn't be surprised, and that's Srila Prabhupada, the spiritual master who brought us the Hare Krsna movement. In the days when the whole earth was watching man's first steps on the moon, Srila Prabhupada said it was bunk.

According to the Vedas, Srila Prabhupada said, the moon isn't such an easy place to land. The moon, say the Vedas, is Candraloka, a heavenly planet. And it's not cold and desolate it's full of life. It's an abode of pious souls, born there as a reward for the noble deeds of former lives.

And those pious souls on the moon aren't keen on receiving tourists, especially not low-minded beer-drinking meat-eating Americans on a mission to "conquer space." Even to get into America, Srila Prabhupada noted, you need a visa. Try to bust your way in, and you're up against the American government. No documents, no permission, and you're blocked out. Then why should the moon be so easy?

Srila Prabhupada's conclusion: We didn't go. Either it was a hoax, or the space conquerors could have veered off course or been purposely diverted and had landed, bewildered, on the dark Vedic planet Rahu. Or who knows what. But one thing was sure: they didn't go.

That was a hard message to swallow. Hadn't we seen them on the moon with our very eyes? But Srila Prabhupada considered our eyes undependable. On television you can see a gorilla climb the Empire State Building, he argued. And do we have to believe it's real?

The scientists may trust their eyes, he said. We trust the Vedas.

And for the next several years he kept challenging us with a question: If we really went to the moon, why aren't we going back?

Even now, a quarter century later, when we've got our eyes set on Mars, it's a question he could still be asking.

Jayadvaita Swami