President Bush (search) wants to send Americans back to the moon — and may leave a permanent presence there — in a bold new vision for space exploration, administration officials said yesterday.

The return to the moon would be for the purpose of technological advancements in technology, including energy exploration and testing a military rocket engine.

And a permanent presence likely will include robots and communication satellites.

But beyond the nuts and bolts, Bush's call for a return to space would give Americans something new to hope for - amid a period of permanent anxiety about terrorism. It would also help move NASA beyond last February's space shuttle Columbia disaster.

Sources said the president may also give the go-ahead to pursue a manned trip to Mars - a long range goal.

NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe (search) told an advisory council yesterday that 2004 will be a "seminal time" for the agency.

"There's an effort under way that will focus the administration's view very prominently on options we can consider. We are looking at some significant changes," O'Keefe said.

Bush could spell out his new plan for space travel on the 100-year anniversary of the Wright Brothers' first flight, Dec. 17, officials said.

The White House refused to comment on Bush's future plans for NASA, saying the president hasn't yet made a decision about what he'll announce.

But high-level meetings involving the White House and NASA have been going on for months.

Sources says Vice President Dick Cheney recently went up to Capitol Hill to meet with Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.) and other key congressmen to discuss space exploration. They discussed resuming manned trips to the Moon, and even the idea of establishing a permanent station on the Moon, sources said.

If the president does announce his new space vision on Dec. 17, it would be 100 years after the Wright Brothers first set an airplane in flight in Kitty Hawk, N.C., and it would be two days before the 30th anniversary of the last manned lunar landing.

Two Texas Republican senators recently sent Bush a letter saying America's space program has been floundering.

"We urge you to elevate the priority of the space program and develop a bold and coherent national mission for NASA," wrote Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison (search) and John Cornyn (search).