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Space voyages shouldn't become politically incorrect

Why should politicians support trips beyond Earth orbit? It's good for jobs in the short term, and good for our survival in the long term. Commentary by NBC News' Jay Barbree.
Image: Sojourner Truth
An artist's conception shows an astronaut examining the Mars Pathfinder mission's Sojourner rover, which operated on the Red Planet in 1997.Pat Rawlings / NASA

It's the kind of question a presidential candidate might ask: "Why should we spend money on space programs and going to Mars, when we need dollars so desperately here on Earth?"

“For thousands of highly-skilled jobs, and the knowledge to survive,” says Princeton physicist Gene McCall, former chief scientist of the Air Force Space Command and a fellow at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

“If we spread the costs among an international consortium with many member nations," McCall told me, “we can afford a better, healthier life, protect our planet from incoming asteroids and space debris, and outsmart our destiny to become extinct.”

The late, great TV news anchor Walter Cronkite used to say, “There’s not a single McDonald's on the moon or on Mars.  Every space dollar stays in the pockets of those needing to eat on Earth."

We see the benefits of the space program all around us in lives saved, in early detection of cancers, in NASA's discovery of the dangers of cholesterol coupled with stress, in early detection of most diseases, in improved surgery techniques needed for repairing failing hearts, in making a child’s small body whole, and in filling our stomachs with safe foods.

We see spaceflight dollars when weather satellites warn of hurricanes, when radar systems tell us that tornadoes are approaching, when satellites log critical environmental changes, when an ATM hands us our cash, when we pay our bills and communicate through satellites. Most importantly, we see space dollars at work when doctors perform surgery robotically through eyes in space, when firefighters walk into flames breathing safely through equipment developed for NASA, when ... Well, there’s simply no end to the benefits gained by science.

If we are to survive, we must have the knowledge and elsewhere to go in our solar system.

Our best bet for homes beyond Earth in the foreseeable future will be the moon or Mars.       

Even with the Red Planet’s thin atmosphere and abundant water in permafrost, its weak magnetosphere, its changing seasons and days the same as Earth’s, it is possibly the second safest place for humans in our solar system. 

"Mars will be a harsh mistress," McCall said. "I’m not sure it will be friendlier to humans than the moon, but we need the choice.   We could likely establish an artificial atmosphere on Mars.  Not possible on the moon because of the low gravity, but making Mars earthlike could be an affordable major hundred year project for the nations of Earth."

One very noticeable difference: Mars will never offer humans warm, sandy beaches.  Its warmest season is akin to North Dakota’s worst winter. But if Earth ever becomes uninhabitable because of disease, famine, nuclear war, a genetic virus, global warming, an asteroid like the one that killed most life on our planet 65 million years ago, or a comet like the one that smasked into Jupiter in 1994, or from any other unforeseen catastrophe ... then we could make Mars habitable.

Only recently an asteroid gave us a close shave by passing inside the moon’s orbit. "We're sitting ducks," said Michio Kaku, a physicist at City University New York. "We have no clue. We cannot defend ourselves without a space program — without rockets to deflect these planet busting items from space.”    

Many historians believe our time left on Earth is measured in generations, not in centuries or billions of years. Our past suggests that the greatest threat to our existence may well be ... us. All the great empires that held dominion over Earth were destroyed or faded away. Those that did survive by achieving luxury and great wealth met their end because of self-satisfaction, idleness, loss of ambition, and because those who know only luxury and pampering tend to lose the skills to survive.  

We humans first appeared in Africa, and up to the present time, we have been pushing outward to the frontier, using inventions ranging from stone tools to Apollo moon landers. If we are to escape history’s plans for our inevitable death, we must rekindle our desire to explore.  Only with multiple homes in our solar system can we ensure human survival.  We’ve already taken Neil Armstrong’s first small step — but if we are to have a future, we must go back to the moon and learn how to colonize near space.        

It's not just up to NASA, says the agency's deputy administrator, Lori Garver. "NASA’s commercial partners are making real progress today opening up a new job-creating segment of the economy that will allow the space agency to focus on its next big challenge, missions to asteroids and Mars," she said.

Presidential candidate Newt Gingrich wants a lunar colony. Professor Gingrich may have his science right, but the need is for a laboratory, not a colony yet, and his logistics and timetable are a little off.

Gingrich's rival for the GOP nomination, Mitt Romney, calls the plan to colonize the moon a waste of taxpayer money and says he’d like to talk.  He’d like another blue-ribbon commission to repeat what Florida Today’s John Kelly has called "a repeat of the paralysis by analysis of the past eight years."

"Likely end: another dust-gathering study, and little to show for it," Kelly said.

Another Republican hopeful, Rick Santorum, wants to see the private sector much more involved, and candidate Ron Paul supports spending money on space for national defense purposes only.

NASA managers say that President Barack Obama’s administration sees no reason for yet another study. The current occupant of the White House believes that the space plans approved by Congress fit today’s budget and offer the most possible highly skilled jobs.

Of the five main candidates running for president, Obama and Gingrich are in favor an active space program like the one that President John Kennedy got started. Romney and Santorum seem to be indifferent, and Paul is against it. At least that's the way I see it.

'JFK's Bold Decision':  An excerpt from 'Moon Shot'
The successful flight of Alan Shepard as the first American in space solidified questions for John Kennedy about America’s efforts in space. He was willing to take the long-range gamble that American science, technology and industry would persevere with clearly defined goals.

At NBC we learned what the president was up to, and I jumped in. "Americans are going to the moon,” I reported, and my boss, Russ Tornabene, shouted down the phone line, “Barbree, I want you on this. Kennedy is speaking before Congress, and it’s your story.”

Feeling a historic milestone in the making, I covered Kennedy’s congressional address.

Back to the future
Today, I’m still on the job covering spaceflight for NBC, and 51 years after Kennedy clearly defined the country’s goals in space, I have yet to witness or report another space decision made so clearly.

After fulfilling the young president’s goal of landing astronauts on the moon, NASA spent the last decade building the International Space Station — a magnificent job by the space shuttle fleet.

The station has a 15-nation partnership, which includes the United States as well as Russia, Japan, Canada and 11 member nations of the European Space Agency. For the next decade, solid science will be done on the orbital outpost, but because it's only a couple of hundred miles up, Earth’s magnetosphere still protects its crew from radiation. Scientists tell me that the space station will help us learn how to live in space, but not how to travel safely through space.  

When the station has completed its assignment, in 2020 or later, NASA and its partners will have to face the headache of bringing a piece of hardware the size of two football fields safely back back down on Earth. The agency is convinced it can steer it to a breakup during atmospheric re-entry, with a wide shower of burning pieces plopping into the Pacific.  Well, NASA thought the same thing about its much smaller Skylab station, which ended up showering fiery debris on some of unpopulated Australia and its cows in 1979.

There are scientists like McCall who would like to persuade the space station’s partners to move the orbiting laboratory’s salvageable parts and systems to an outpost at the moon’s south pole. The move could be done with present-day rocket technology, climaxing in a soft crash landing on the moon that would free the partnership from dealing with the headache of the station's disposal in Earth's oceans. Some scientists believe they could use the salvageable systems and housing to build a laboratory only three days' journey from Earth, where they could gain the know-how needed to visit an asteroid or Mars.

If the occupants of the White House between now and then keep America’s current space program on track, NASA should have private rocket and spacecraft companies like SpaceX and Boeing taking care of the work in low Earth orbit, while the agency does the job that Congress has envisioned: developing the heavy-lift rockets and Orion spaceships needed for deep-space exploration.

The costs for those deep-space missions and a proposed return to the moon with a lunar laboratory would be easily affordable if shared by an international consortium.

Scientists who should know agree that the lunar target should be Aitken Basin at the moon’s south pole. Aitken is a location they have been studying for more than a decade, and those making the study say it would be the perfect site for a lunar settlement.

Aitken has high ridges that are in sunlight — which is good for solar power — and the lower parts of the crater are in permanent shadow. Amid the darkness of the shadows, scientists expect to find loads of water ice, with lots of hydrogen that could be combined with oxygen to produce breathing air and rocket propellant. Water and ice could also be used to shield the inhabitants of a moon base from solar and galactic radiation.

Because payloads can be lifted from the moon with just one-sixth of the rocket power required on Earth, NASA planners say lunar water can be propelled much more cheaply as a radiation shield for spaceflights to asteroids and Mars.

Many believe scientists at an international lunar laboratory could develop the knowledge needed for the nations of Earth to reach Mars in the 2030s.

"All we need is a coming together," McCall said. "Humans thrive on exploring new lands. Our lives are composed of much more than the food we put in our mouths, or the cash we give to the local automobile dealer.

"Is a lunar laboratory practical?  No, not unless it’s built by many nations. But it is part of what makes being a human worthwhile."

More from 'Getting to Mars':

More from 'Moon Shot':

NBC News' Jay Barbree is the only journalist to cover every spaceflight flown by astronauts from Cape Canaveral. He has won NASA’s highest medal for public service and the National Space Club’s 2009 Press Award. Barbree also has written several books about the space effort, including an updated version of published by Open Road Integrated Media and available from , , ,   and . "Moon Shot" excerpt updated and reprinted with permission, copyright 2011.