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Shoot the Moon
President Bush has indicated a desire to rejuvenate America’s mission in space, but is his plan of manned flights to Mars destined to be wide of the mark and short of the goal?

By William Kanapaux

When I grow up to be president, I want to become an astronaut.

That seemed to be the underlying message last month when President Bush promised us the moon, Mars and possibly the stars, all for the low, low price of just $1 billion a year over NASA’s current budget. His plan to colonize the moon and beyond is tall on concept and short on details. All that was missing was an appearance by Buzz Lightyear.

For NASA it signaled an abrupt change in priorities: A manned mission to the moon by 2015. A permanent lunar base by 2020. And, if you kids behave yourselves, a vacation to Mars someday.

But the price for getting there might be far too high. By ignoring the true costs for manned space exploration, an ill-conceived plan to revamp NASA’s mission could further damage our efforts to explore the frontiers of space.

Bush’s plan is practically budget- neutral for the first five years. It would add only an extra $1 billion to NASA’s budget. The space agency has to come up with the extra $11 billion by re-allocating money from other projects.

The first casualty appears to be the Hubble telescope, which stands to have its life cut short by four or five years. NASA announced last month that it decided to scrub future shuttle flights to maintain it. And this even though NASA’s chief scientist, Dr. John M. Grunsfeld, described the Hubble as “the best marriage of human spaceflight and science.” Since its launch in 1990, the space telescope has brought us awe-inspiring images and offered scientists a revealing glimpse into the composition and origins of our universe.

Not any longer. Without another shuttle flight for maintenance, the telescope will probably die in orbit in 2007 and drop in the ocean shortly thereafter. A replacement telescope wouldn’t reach orbit until 2011.

Other programs are also vulnerable as tight resources get shifted to the new mission. NASA’s Earth science and aeronautical research programs are threatened, as are experiments aboard the International Space Station in material sciences, physics and chemistry. All of this is basic science, the stuff from which technological innovation and scientific knowledge emerge.

In fairness to the current administration, the Clinton years didn’t do many favors for NASA either. The space agency’s mantra during the 1990s was “faster, cheaper, better,” a slogan intended to encourage a streamlined bureaucracy and a push to build the best product at the lowest cost.

Ten years later, NASA has an aging fleet of space shuttles with a propensity toward catastrophic failure and a space station that is four times over budget and well behind schedule. Last Sunday’s one-year anniversary of the Columbia disaster, in which seven astronauts died, served as a sober reminder for what can go wrong when a space agency lacks a clear sense of direction and the financial backing to achieve its goals.

But NASA has successfully landed two rovers on Mars, no small feat. But even that mission had its problems, with the first rover malfunctioning shortly after its arrival. Still, when things go wrong for robots in outer space, you beam software fixes across some 35 million miles of space and hope they do the trick. When things go wrong for humans, they die.

The current success of NASA’s two rovers calls into question the need for human flight to Mars anytime in the foreseeable future. The solar radiation, the isolation and the basic perils of landing on a distant planet can be handled much more easily by a machine. On the other hand, machines make lousy heroes.

But the debate goes deeper than that, to the very heart of our purpose in space exploration.

The most likely objective for further space exploration is greater military domination. Few Americans would want to see China establish a moon base while NASA played with remote-control astro-buggies halfway across the solar system. Military strategy played a major role in President Kennedy’s promise in 1961 to land a man on the moon within a decade. It was also a factor in the eventual decline of the space program. We won the space race and then the Cold War. No more threat from above. End of story.

Kennedy’s initiative also came with a hefty price tag. In today’s dollars, the Apollo program cost more than $150 billion. Meanwhile, for $12 billion, NASA is expected to develop an all-purpose spacecraft to replace the shuttles in just four years. If the International Space Station is any indication, expect major cost over-runs and a lot of missed deadlines.

With that in mind, it seems that human-operated missions to space must have well-defined goals. Why do it? How long will it take? How much will it cost?

Bush’s proposal considers a moon base to be a critical step toward colonizing Mars. Let’s ignore for the moment the larger question of whether we need to send humans to Mars at all and consider the moon as a destination of its own.

In terms of “why”: A renewed moon program could unlock some of the mysteries of our solar system and the origins of life on earth. Planetary scientists are especially interested in exploring the South Pole-Aitken basin on the far side of the moon. But these missions could also be done by robotic probes at a fraction of the cost of a manned mission.

And that brings up the issue of money: Can a moon base be established for roughly 15 percent of the cost of conducting a war in a poorly armed Middle Eastern country? Not likely.

Bush’s plan would require a tremendous outlay of cash in the years ahead. In his speech announcing the new space initiative, he declared that “establishing an extended human presence on the moon could vastly reduce the costs of further space exploration.” Of course this says nothing about the initial costs of establishing a moon base in the first place.

And it will be expensive. Each space shuttle flight costs about $500 million, and building a moon base, not to mention rockets for Mars, will likely require numerous trips to transport thousands of tons of material. According to some estimates, a single human-operated mission to Mars could cost as much as $600 billion.

For a little more than one-tenth of a percent of that amount ($820 million), NASA just sent the two probes to Mars.

Probes may not be the answer indefinitely, but putting humans on another planet has to be done for the right reasons. The risks and the costs are simply too high, especially when machines can do critical work such as surveys, measurements and analyses of soil and rock samples. Human exploration will come with time, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of scientific inquiry.

If Bush is serious about rejuvenating the space program, one can only hope his administration puts the time and energy into getting it right. But if his State of the Union address is any indication, that’s not going to happen. He never mentioned the Moon-Mars mission, despite his announcement only days earlier. In that case, the entire initiative might turn out to be just another pipe dream that derails any real sense of mission at NASA.

And that would be a shame.

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