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Mars: A Planet Too Far?

by Alice L. George on Jan 28, 2004

Alice L. George

In popular memory, President John F. Kennedy boldly declared in 1961 that Americans should race to the moon, and the nation rallied around him. Nothing like that happened when George W. Bush recently endorsed a return to the moon and a manned mission to Mars. In fact, nothing like that happened when Kennedy issued his challenge either.

Like Bush, Kennedy faced valid questions in 1961 about whether it was prudent to invest so much money in space when there were still so many pressing problems on earth. But Kennedy had an additional selling point. According to a 1962 Aviation Week poll, 56 percent of Americans thought that the lunar mission was “questionable but perhaps necessary because of the Cold War.”

Congress obviously shared the belief that beating the Soviet Union to the moon was an important goal because it backed the Apollo program despite its $23 billion price tag.

The Bush administration is unlikely to find the kind of congressional backing that Kennedy received. Although many Americans find space exploration more appealing than some of Bush’s other programs, policymakers — other than those in the Bush administration — could find better uses for that money on earth.

Even with overwhelming congressional backing, Kennedy had second thoughts about the expense of the lunar project. He twice attempted to escape the tremendous financial commitment by promoting a joint lunar trip by the United States and the Soviet Union. That idea was never realized, in part because most Americans opposed sharing technology or glory with the Communist giant.

Without the threat of a hulking enemy outpacing the United States in space, Bush faces a tough battle. When his father similarly recommended a return to the moon and a voyage to Mars in 1989, the proposal was basically dead on arrival in Congress. A recent Associated Press poll showed that 48 percent of Americans back the new proposal for Mars exploration, while an equal number oppose it.

Given the public’s sharp division and the costs of the ongoing war on terrorism, Congress is squeamish about NASA’s failure to attach an overall price to Bush’s proposal, especially when outside estimates run as high as $600 billion.

Projections long have been problematic for the space agency. In selling the idea of a reusable space shuttle during the 1970s, NASA predicted that the shuttle could pay for itself by achieving 25 to 30 missions a year, and could fly as many as 48 times a year.

In reality, the shuttle never became cost-efficient. It has never flown more than nine times in a single year. Two of the five shuttles have been destroyed, with their crews, in apparently preventable accidents.

With the possibility of spiraling costs and unforeseeable technological problems, especially given the 14-month round trip that would be required to get human beings to and from Mars, Bush’s proposal will be difficult to sell.

Some political leaders would prefer to see those funds used to balance the budget. Others favor addressing urgent social needs: poverty, health-care costs, environmental protection and the research wars against AIDS, Alzheimer’s disease and cancer. Even those of us who are space enthusiasts must admit that the United States faces real problems that demand prompt action.

Based on this administration’s record, it’s unlikely that money saved by delaying further space initiatives would be invested in such causes. Kennedy robbed a strong domestic agenda to fuel the space race. If Bush’s space proposals are not approved, his administration is more likely to promote additional tax cuts for the wealthy or expensive investments in defense programs.

Given that likelihood, it’s not unreasonable to argue that research on the moon would be the most meaningful extension of Kennedy’s vision and far more worthwhile than lining the pockets of the wealthy. A return to the moon could offer valuable opportunities for astronomical research, practical experience that would prepare us for later planetary expeditions and the prospect of mining rich lunar resources.

Since there’s a chance that a different president will control the White House a year from today and since a new president definitely will be in power long before Bush’s Mars time line would place astronauts on the red planet, it seems unwise to dive into a major space project while so many other needs are pressing. A new leader might urge Congress to invest in solving more down-to-earth problems now so that a better United States will have the opportunity for exploration later.

Kennedy’s moon pledge was fulfilled after his death primarily because Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and the Congresses of that era shared his belief that going to the moon achieved an important Cold War objective. Bush’s proposals may fire the imaginations of some, but without a better rationale for such huge investments, his space program is unlikely to generate a supportive consensus.

Alice L. George, author of "Awaiting Armageddon: How Americans Faced the Cuban Missile Crisis," is an independent historian and a writer for the History News Service.