When it comes to space travel, President Bush is right. America should return people to the moon and then we should go on to Mars. Here's why:
* First and foremost, it's time we scrapped the expensive and irrelevant space shuttle and put something better in its place. That's what Bush's plan would do. It would create heavy launch vehicles suited for deep space. As I wrote back in May, "The central question that needs answering is this: Are the missions we've been sending astronauts on worth risking their lives in the first place? Before answering, tell me this.... Can you even say what the missions of the Challenger and the Columbia were? Neither can I. They were something on the order of testing the effects of weightlessness on fruit flies, the sorts of make-work missions on which this nation has squandered half a trillion dollars--and more than a dozen astronauts' lives--over the past 30 years. For the same money, who doubts we could have built a colony on the moon or gone to Mars? Who knows what benefits might have accrued. At the least, NASA might have inspired the world the way the first moon landing inspired generations to greater achievement. Remember the words on the plaque Armstrong and Aldrin left in the Sea of Tranquility? `We came in peace for all mankind.' Somehow NASA must reassert that vision."
* Second, what Bush is proposing sounds expensive, but it really isn't. Consider. Project Apollo cost $25 billion over ten years. The space shuttle program cost on the order of $350 billion and counting over the past 30 years! Think of that. It's outrageous. Dinking around in low earth orbit in space shuttles cost taxpayers more than 10 times what it cost to go to the moon. Bush is proposing that we stop squandering money on the shuttle. His new program would add only about 5 percent to the NASA budget, an increase that probably would've come along sooner or later as NASA spruced up the decrepit shuttle fleet. And who doubts more shuttle disasters are on the way? Meanwhile, technology has been developed for exploiting elements on the moon and Mars to create rocket fuel, and make manned flight there less expensive.
Look at it this way. This country is not about to abandon manned space travel. To do so would be unpopular and demoralizing at a time when other nations, such as China and a more unified Europe, are developing such technology.
So, if we are going to spend billions on space travel anyhow--as we've done for more than 40 years now--the question becomes, what kind of program will we have? Will it be the same old destructive and irrelevant program we've grown bored by, in which billions are squandered annually to study the effects of weightlessness on fruit flies, 250 miles or so overhead? Or will we reach on out to inhabit worlds millions of miles away?
* Third, going to other worlds could pay off in unexpected ways. We've all heard about the spin-offs, the new industries spawned by space travel. The potential for new forms of energy and materials development. Such arguments leave me cold. I stated the real reasons I support new, visionary forms of space travel, as recently as August. I didn't realize just how soon such abstract observations might become pertinent, when I wrote:
"The ultimate reason for going into space is the survival of the species. It's a numbers game. The galaxy is full of space debris crisscrossing the skies. Eventually something very large is going to crash into planet earth. It might not happen for millions of years, but it could happen in our lifetimes. Scientists tell us such collisions have caused the extinction of species the world over more than once.
"In order to survive, humankind sooner or later must branch out from this little blue marble. If that concept seems too abstract, consider this:
"Nuclear annihilation and environmental catastrophe also threaten us.
"Former moonwalkers I've spoken with talk about the apparent lack of boundaries on this beautiful globe (as seen from space). They speak of the necessity to work for peaceful coexistence, in order to prevent the world from lapsing into violence and despair and, perhaps, another dark age. They are writing books, painting pictures and preaching about the need to love one another and preserve the Earth.
"Such is the Apollo legacy. NASA should learn from its long-distance voyagers and offer up a vision worthy of a species ready to leave the cradle."
Bush's bold new proposal clears the way. If it's a bluff, we should call it. If it's a vision, we should embrace it.