Why Mars, Part III

My rather imprecise discussion earlier of space science left some people with the impression that I was speaking in support of President Bush’s Moon-Mars initiative. Nothing could be further from my feelings on this issue.

First, there is, in fact, no Bush initiative. This is words, not deeds, and the deeds will be interesting and worthy of debate at some future point, but the words are just hot nothings. Doing something of this sort takes money and a plan, and the Bush Adminstration has offered neither. So perhaps this is best ignored. But the idea, as vaporous as it is, is at least in play, and therefore is worth addressing.

For a number of decades we have been flying astronauts round and round in low earth orbit. There has been a scientific fig leaf of microgravity experiments and the like, but the only real justifiable research one could argue that we have been conducting was self-referential – sending humans into space to learn about sending humans into space. And what is it that we have learned? That it is expensive, dangerous, and not terribly useful. In short, if we have learned anything, we have learned that sending humans into space is, at least as we understand today how we might do it, a bad idea.

During that same time, we have launched unmanned probes to Venus, Mars and the gas giants that have returned a trove of amazing and useful scientific data. Compare and contrast.

The program’s defenders point to the unique skills a human in space offers that a robotic probe lacks. Look, they say, at the remarkable Hubble servicing missions, which could not have been done by a robotic satellite. I grant that this is true, but ask at what cost? For the money we’ve spent on shuttle flights, we could have lobbed up a new Hubble once a year. So what if one of them, or two or five breaks. We’d have a whole bunch more!

There’s a great story often retold here in the high desert country of the U.S. southwest about Garcia Lopez de Cardenas, the first European to see the Grand Canyon. It was 1540, and he and his party were hunting for the fabled lost cities of gold. We see the great canyon for its majesty and intrinsic beauty. For Cardenas, it was in the way. His reaction, in essence, was, “Crap, guess we can’t go that way.” The retelling of the Cardenas story is usually accompanied by a sort of mockery. “What a fool, could he not see?” But I think that misses the point. There was a time three centuries later when technology and the need of this continent’s European immigrants had reached the point where the canyon made a different sort of sense. And today, with tough rubber-skinned inflatable boats, radios and the prospect of helicopter rescue, and our post-20th century aesthetic, it makes perfect sense. But I await the making of that case with respect to Mars.


  1. There is a further point to the story you told at the end of your post, though.

    If no one had *ever* crossed a river, canyon, or stream, we wouldn’t *have* the tech that lets us now comfortably deal with it.

    The ocean is a very perilous place. Boats are flimsy compared to what Nature can do. But what if early humans had said, “Hey! This water stuff is dangerous! Let’s stop going out in the water and swimming in it; all we can do right now is paddle around a little close to shore and hope we don’t have problems.” We wouldn’t *have* the later ships, let alone the current superships (ice breakers, supertankers, submarines, etc.).

    The point is that, while it’s not terribly rewarding *now*, the eperience we’re gathering is increasing our knowledge of the spacefaring craft, like staying in boats aided our waterfaring craft. We don’t *yet* have the experience to do much with it, but we will _provided_we_continue_.

  2. But for your seafaring analogy to work, you’ve got to be able to show some substantial benefit that can be returned.

    The early mariners didn’t just do it to do it. They brought back loads of tasty fish to Europe, and in Polynesia and later the Americas found cool new places to live. Our space program has brought back nothing that couldn’t have been gotten more safely and easily without sending people into space*, and learned that space is not at all a good place to live.

    And when the Native Americans (even before Cardenas) and other later European immigrants found good reasons to cross the Colorado Plateau, they found ways to do it. It’s importantly a matter of having a good reason for taking the risk, not just taking the risk for its own sake.

    * Except maybe moon rocks, which have been scientifically valuable?

  3. agreed the bush plan is worth forgetting.

    something to distract the public as the US begins what will be a long year of pulling out of the iraq quagmire. hey, its worked, i see more drivel on the news regarding this non-plan than i do about iraqi insurgents putting notches on their rifles.

    a manned moon base followed by a mars mission carries a minimum $1 trillion price tag. there is no way the military contractors are going to let this cash cow go without at least 50% cost overruns. look at how they have gouged the taxpayers on ISS – the space station has been very profitable for boeing, while doing virtually nothing useful and still very incomplete.

    medicare and social security have a $40 trillion underfunded entitlement through 2040, about the same time period as a mars landing. if you think $1 trillion is going to magically materialize over this same period for a pointless gesture, think again.

    we live in a bread and circuses society. don’t pay attention to that man behind the curtain.

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