By Senior Science Writer
updated 1/13/2004 6:15:14 PM ET 2004-01-13T23:15:14
COMMENTARY

President Bush's trial balloon for sending humans back to the Moon and on to Mars is, naturally, becoming politicized. Critics question whether America can afford a bold new space initiative at a time of fiscal disarray back home.

"It is not worth bankrupting the country," said Democratic presidential hopeful Howard Dean.

Of course it isn't. And it need not.

Setting up a permanent base on the Moon — Bush is expected to call for a return in about 10-15 years — and then reaching for Mars does not require any outlandish hike in NASA's budget.

Beyond a modest 5 percent increase that Bush will reportedly announce Wednesday, getting people beyond Earth orbit means shifting the existing budget from arguably ineffective and unpopular programs — crippled shuttles and a leaking space station — into building a new generation of space taxis and other worldly habitats.

Severe change needed
To be successful, the reorganization plan should be swift and severe.

Instead of spending billions each year to circle the Earth, Bush should quickly redirect the same billions to an effort singularly focused on getting to Mars, with the Moon as an important step.

Unfounded fears of a money pit abound. An editorial in the Washington Post, for example, faults Bush for thinking of ambitious spaceflight plans at a time when there are serious social and economic concerns.

But comparing the value of human spaceflight to the need for jobs or improved healthcare looks at the whole issue of how to spend federal money from an absurd perspective. It's like asking whether schools should offer sports programs or focus entirely on reading, writing and math.

The question of whether to put humans on the Moon and Mars should be viewed strictly in terms of how best to spend a reasonable chunk of science and exploration dollars, not in comparison to other important government programs. All the while NASA's budget must remain reasonable — not much more than the tiny fraction of overall federal spending that it is today.

The money is there
The 2004 federal budget is $2.2 trillion. NASA's is $15.5 billion. Reasonable estimates suggest the space agency's share of the pie would need to rise gradually to $20 billion within a few years if footprints are to be made in Martian dust within a generation.

First, Bush aides say, the plan will call for a return to the Moon, in part so new technology critical to a Mars mission can be tested.

In 1995, NASA scientists and engineers developed a plan to put astronauts back on the Moon by 2001 for $3 billion or less. Other estimates nowadays put the cost at around $15 billion over five years.

That's $3 billion a year. NASA has the money.

About half of the agency's budget is already spent directly on human spaceflight. Nearly $4 billion is earmarked annually for the shuttle program. The cost of the space station is elusive, but it exceeds $1 billion each year. Another $2 billion or more goes to supporting research and maintaining the infrastructure needed for all human spaceflight activity.

Drop the ISS
Bush's new plan reportedly will phase out the shuttle program in favor of a new Orbital Space Plane over the next decade.

The fate of the space station is less clear, but remaining planned components would apparently be delivered before costs would drop. The sooner the better. Like the Edsel, the orbiting outpost might be a technologically wonderful machine, but it is not worth the minor science return or lack of inspiration it provides. How many people can name a single member of the eight crews that have lived there? And who can name a single discovery that's resulted from its science operations?

Good science is not necessarily popular science, but NASA knows better than any institution that it doesn't hurt when you are working with public funds.

Bush's exact plans aren't known. But many experts hope the space station will ultimately be supplanted by a new one that would sit about 80 percent of the way toward the Moon, in a gravitationally balanced spot called a LaGrangian point. Getting to and from that station — and onto the Moon or Mars — would be cheaper than using bigger rockets to make direct flights.

Reasons to go
"There's no real rationale for colonization of the Moon, so it's hard not to be cynical and conclude this is the space-age equivalent of bread and circuses," Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute, a Democratic research group, said in The New York Times the other day.

Marshall's criticism is either uninformed or patently political, or both. Scientists and space visionaries can quickly tick off several practical reasons:

  • Solar energy could be collected on the atmosphere-free Moon from properly located sites 24/7, then beamed to Earth. Some advocates say all the world's power needs could be met. Realistically, it could at least augment strained energy resources for many countries, both industrialized and developing.
  • Lunar minerals could be mined and shipped back to Earth or used for Moon-based manufacturing of lunar hotels and science facilities. A whole new economy would support scientists, colonists and lunar tourists.
  • Huge telescopes on the Moon would offer an unprecedented view of the cosmos, unhampered by atmosphere or light pollution. Think Hubble on steroids.
  • The Moon contains rocks that were blasted from Earth billions of years ago by asteroid impacts. Things don't weather much on the Moon, so these rocks hold the only available clues to Earth's earliest geologic history.

Share the cost
NASA does not have to foot the entire bill for setting up a Moon base. Other nations will want to play, and they will pay. As an additional benefit, some space policy analysts note, such a cooperative international effort could bring nations together as never before. China, with its own lunar ambitions, is an obvious target for cooperation.

And it can be a public-private project in which corporations pony up in exchange for access to lunar minerals and the chance to beam power back to Earth, or to build the first extraterrestrial Hilton.

Private citizens with the means would pay dearly for tickets to the Moon.

Sir Martin Rees, the eminent theoretical astrophysicists and space visionary, recently pointed out that the commercialization of space is already underway. It now needs a governmental nudge to get beyond the realm of satellites.

"Space is already commercially exploited for telecommunications and other applications. But the 'glamorous' aspects of space — science, planetary exploration, and of course astronauts — have in the U.S. been the prerogative of NASA. It is time for the private sector to expand its role here too."

On to Mars
Continuing on to Mars will be more dangerous and more costly, with the tangible rewards less evident. Yet in the final cost-benefit analysis, we should not shortchange our souls.

"The moment we land on Mars, all the people of the world will weep with joy," science fiction writer Ray Bradbury said last week.

He's probably close to being right. But what might worldwide rapture cost?

Estimates vary greatly. Many analysts say a manned mission to Mars would cost anywhere from $50 billion to $250 billion. Others, like Robert Zubrin of the Mars Society advocacy group, think it could be done for as little as $30 billion if bureaucracy is limited.

If one assumes a NASA-led $100 billion effort and a launch target of 2024, that would be $5 billion per year if we start funding the project now. That's one-third of NASA's present annual budget. Not outlandish, not impossible, and not with any significant impact on other governmental programs.

Again, other countries will be willing to share the cost of the grandest mission ever, if we ask them to.

Pain for gain
Going to Mars, and even getting back to the Moon efficiently, will mean painful reorganization at NASA.

Programs will be cut, offices closed. Humans might be completely absent from space for a few years as momentum is built for loftier pursuits — though there is no indication the White House will suggest this route. Robotic space exploration might see flat budgets. Perhaps some NASA employees will be laid off. Yet others would be hired as goals are radically shifted.

Do all this and young, bright minds will view the new NASA as a place where they can do great things. School children would see a reason to study hard, a chance to be the first human to visit and explore another planet.

Bush's plan needs to be business-like, rather than business as usual.

NASA is steeped in innovation, but its human spaceflight program is as stale as a sweat-stained Apollo suit. Nothing short of a clear, long-term and tremendously challenging goal can give its human spaceflight program the vitality and relevancy obvious in its robotic pursuits.

A trip to Mars must also promise practical rewards. These are several to expect.

The technology that would be developed over the next 20 years, in preparation, along with the medical knowledge gleaned from long-term low-gravity living and exposure to high levels of radiation, will have unknown but surely significant benefits to those who remain on this planet. In medicine alone, NASA spinoff technology has a solid track record, having given us MRI and CAT scanners, among many other benefits.

Finally, putting humans on Mars -- especially geologists and biologists — could quickly answer the ultimate question in science: Are we alone? If there is or ever was microbial life on Mars — and many scientists believe only a human mission will determine the answer — then everything we humans think about ourselves, our world, about science and religion, will be viewed in a new light.

No small pursuit.

And no small risk. Human spaceflight is very, very dangerous.

You don't need to tell that to the current astronaut corps, who recently lost seven of their own. These brave adventurers know that more will die if NASA is given a directive to go to Mars. And they are itching to get in line.

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