Space race to Mars: Politics or progress?

The impetus for American space exploration began with the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik in 1957. Four years later, President John F. Kennedy proposed to put an American on the moon within the decade. Clearly an ambitious aim, the space race between the Soviet Union and the United States captivated the world. Some 45 years later, President George W. Bush has announced an initiative aimed at once again sending Americans to the moon, but this time as a launching pad for a journey to Mars. However, President Bush’s “vision for space exploration” cannot go forward without careful scrutiny of cost and motivation.

If the idea of sending a manned flight to Mars sounds familiar, it should; President George Bush Sr. proposed a comprehensive manned mission to Mars with the moon as an intermediate goal in 1989. Congress did not warmly receive his proposal, especially given the estimated price tag of $450 billion. Interestingly, the current president has chosen to outline the financial costs of the current plan differently, emphasizing an additional $1 billion over the next 5 years coupled with the redistribution of $11 billion currently in the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s budget. Hopefully a more realistic picture of the costs of such an undertaking will begin to be understood following the Commission on Moon, Mars and Beyond issuing its report on the implementation of the president’s vision. NASA must first develop a crew-delivery vehicle to take the place of the aging space shuttle fleet. This alone is a major undertaking. Sen. Bill Nelson, (D)-Fl., himself a former NASA astronaut, was quick to point out in a CNN interview earlier this year that even with a new delivery vehicle, concurrent 5 percent increases in NASA’s budget would not get us to the moon by 2013, as CNN Space Correspondent Miles O’Brien had suggested. It is clear that a viable cost estimate just doesn’t exist for the president’s plan.

Not understanding the scope and cost of such a vision will make supporting the measure increasingly difficult for congressional members also faced with mounting domestic issues. The beleaguered NASA administration is reeling from accusations of safety issues in the shuttle program as well as an unpopular initial plan to scrap the Hubble Space Telescope. Congressional hesitancy in devoting a larger portion of the discretionary budget to NASA makes sense considering NASA has not recovered enough to even launch a space shuttle.

President Bush’s plan for space exploration emphasizes ideas such as American ingenuity, international cooperation and human destiny, which, while significant for its intangible quality, leave one wondering if there are ulterior motives. A recurring theme of this new direction for the space agency is the attempt to bring the private sector into a more prominent role in NASA. As the Washington Post reported in January, corporate giants such as Lockheed Martin, Boeing and Halliburton could potentially profit from such an ambitious space plan. These behemoths of the defense complex, already profiting from the war in Iraq, have enormous power as the November elections approach. Certainly there remains the real possibility that even with the biggest bank account going into the general election, the president could fail in his re-election bid. Following the invasion of Iraq, which may or may not be the historical legacy Bush has desired, what better way to be remembered than to be the president who initiated NASA’s re-emergence into legitimacy and conquest of space?

While supporting the concept of space exploration as a means to further our scientific understanding, it is difficult to sell the idea that we must embark on a journey to Mars right now.

But interestingly, polling during the middle of the 20th century found that several Americans were skeptical of going to space. The idea was sold based on the concept of a “space race” between us and “them.” At the time, Americans could identify with that motivation, and thus the financial burden and analysis of motivations were not as poignant or pertinent as they are today.

Aaron Hill is a sophomore majoring in chemistry.