Jan. 14, 2004 Skeptics argue that President Bush didn't know the p.r. gun was loaded that his feel-good, vaguely framed promise to send astronauts back to the moon and eventually to Mars was intended only to juice his numbers in an election year and would be forgotten. But the kind of budget reallocation the White House then proposed to allow the plan to happen hardheaded, sensible, less than what space buffs might want but not half bad belied that. NASA, in turn, reconfigured itself, proposing a firm 2010 date for the shuttle stand-down and the completion of the space station so that money could be diverted from those budgetary sinkholes to the new project. And engineers began whipping up plans for new vehicles based on the old Apollo template, though enlarged for more-ambitious missions and improved with electronics and materials not available 40 years ago. Metal is now being cut for the new machines, and while it's hardly a sure thing that boots will indeed be back on the moon by the promised date of 2020, it's hardly a sure thing that they won't be either. After 26 years of the shuttle, that's a big step.