President Bush’s space vision: Is this trip necessary?

Nov. 1, 2005
NASA has finally unveiled details about its proposed $104 billion plan to return astronauts to the moon by 2018, but critics detect a demonstrably uncertain sound of this trumpet.
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WASHINGTON - NASA has finally unveiled details about its proposed $104 billion plan to return astronauts to the moon by 2018, but critics detect a demonstrably uncertain sound of this trumpet.

Contractors, including the Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and Northrop Grumman teams, are working on the crew exploration vehicle, or CEV, which NASA Administrator Michael Griffin describes as “very Apollo-like, but bigger … Apollo on steroids.”

This may not be the best metaphor to describe the program. President Bush first unveiled the plan in January 2004, but didn’t even mention it in his State of the Union speech delivered a few days later, focusing instead on the evils of steroid use by professional athletes.

The bottom line is that the plan, while commendable, lacks the compelling urgency of President Kennedy’s call for American astronauts to land on the moon during the decade of the 1960s.

The purpose then was clear: catch up with the Russians in space and show the rest of the world that the United States was a force to be reckoned with in the ongoing Cold War.

That war was completed to our satisfaction, and we taxpayers got our money’s worth from Apollo. The obvious question now is what benefits we can expect from the $104 billion in Bush’s latest moon proposal … and I would be mightily surprised if that’s all the program is going to cost.

For openers, the plan raises once again the issue of manned vs. robotic space exploration. Manned exploration is demonstrably more expensive and, as we became painfully aware after the tragedies of the Challenger and Columbia space shuttles, inherently dangerous.

Robert Park, professor of physics at the University of Maryland and longtime critic of the space program, points out that the Spirit and Opportunity roving vehicles have been searching for evidence of water on Mars for nearly two years. “They don’t break for lunch or complain about the cold nights,” he says, “and they live on sunshine.”

What Spirit and Opportunity don’t do is enable the taxpayers to live out vicariously the great adventure of human space exploration. That’s why NASA wants astronauts in the loop: they get a lot more exposure on the evening news than a couple of little robot spacecraft.

President Bush’s father understood this intuitively when he proposed in 1989 that American astronauts should plant the stars and stripes on Mars by 2019 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Apollo moon landing.

To give the first President Bush some credit for candor, NASA at the time estimated that the effort would cost at least $400 billion. It predictably faded from view when critics asked pointedly what they were getting for that money.

That question is still with us. There has been no great outcry from the scientific community demanding manned exploration of the Moon and Mars. The scientists would be perfectly happy to spend a small fraction of that $104 billion to continue their current unmanned programs, which have been of inestimable value to the entire human race.

Try to imagine what life was like before weather satellites, particularly during the recent hurricane devastation of the Gulf Coast; I can remember the time before communications satellites tied the entire planet into a global network. Add to that the emerging markets made possible by the Global Positioning System, or GPS, and I think the case for unmanned space operations is compelling.

In addition to the excitement of the brave astronauts venturing where no one has ever gone before, NASA has consistently sold its program to the public on the basis of its infusion of new technology into the economy. I don’t think that machine will fly anymore.

My observation has been that NASA was consistently a net importer of technology, mostly from the military, and this was particularly the case with electronics. Commercial markets then and now have driven electronics technology far more than space exploration has.

What this proposal of NASA’s is really all about is the romance of human exploration. This seems particularly attractive for a country that was settled by sturdy frontiersmen migrating ever farther westward to achieve what they called their manifest destiny.

As the grandson of a homesteader myself, I find this appealing. But as a taxpayer, I’m reluctant to shell out money for this particular will of the wisp.

The homesteaders knew what they were after: land. That was a critical commodity in an agriculture-based economy. I have yet to hear, despite efforts on my part, what economic benefits we can expect from homesteading the solar system.

Park sees the whole proposal as another political gimmick, saying that the Bush administration is creating “an impossibly expensive and pointless program for some other administration to cancel, thus bearing the blame for ending human space exploration.” I agree.

An equally vocal critic is Alex Roland, a former NASA historian and now professor of history at Duke University, who contends that NASA has a long history of underestimating costs and technical difficulty and that the current plan would probably fail to withstand close congressional scrutiny.

“It’s possible, but very unlikely,” Roland says. “I doubt this plan will put any man or woman on the Moon in our lifetime.”

Nonetheless, I find it hard to ignore entirely the romantic vision of humans engaged in a manifest destiny of their own in the solar system. I think the critics make a strong case against the program on rational grounds, but lack this romantic vision.

I’d like to propose another model, which may at first glance appear hopelessly fanciful. A valuable component of our global civilization is the operas that Mozart and others composed under commissions from the Austrian imperial government. I suspect those operas cost about the same, as measured in percentage of gross domestic product, as NASA’s program to explore the solar system.

Yet those operas live on and are a perpetual tribute to all of those involved in their creation. Viewed in that context, I think we Americans can make a comparable contribution to global civilization with this ambitious space program.

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