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Mission to Mars
W's new vision for NASA.


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The word from the White House is that President Bush will give NASA a new mission next week–reportedly instructing the space agency to send astronauts back to the moon and then to Mars. Although few specific details about the plan have trickled out so far, it seems that the president is going to give NASA what it needs most: a vision worthy of America.

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The plan is the culmination of the work of a national space-policy review begun by the administration in 2002. The job of the review board was made more urgent after the shuttle Columbia broke up over Texas last February. Although the immediate cause of the accident was a piece of foam that smacked into the shuttle’s wing, the Columbia Accident Investigation Board also found that the culture of the NASA bureaucracy was to blame–a problem that could ultimately be traced back to “the lack of an agreed national vision for human space flight.” For three decades, since the end of the Apollo program, American astronauts have been stuck in low Earth orbit, going up and down in fragile shuttles. President Bush’s new vision for NASA will put an end to this dithering, and put America back on track to exploring space.

In the coming days and weeks, as the president’s plan is criticized by the press and pundits, there are several important factors to keep in mind–lessons from the past, and warnings for the future.

(1) The sooner, the better. First, the timing of the new plan is critical. If the major parts of the mission are set too far in the future, they will never happen. According to one report, the president’s plan is going to call for lunar landings starting in 2013. In other words, it will take nine long years to get back to the moon, even though it only took eight years to get there in the Apollo era–when they had to start from scratch!

Delay can mean death for space projects. The simple fact is, American politicians lack the patience and stick-to-itiveness to sustain a serious space program for decades, so beware any plans that make promises 40 or 50 years away. Even a plan with goals set for 20 years from now will have to survive through 5 presidential terms, 10 successive congresses, 20 annual budgets, and scores of committee meetings. The nearer the date set for our goal, the better the chance that the required political support will stay intact. And, as a bonus, by insisting on deadlines that are sooner rather than later, an enormous amount of wasteful spending on programs that don’t support the main goal can be avoided.

(2) We can explore space without busting the budget. Okay, well, the budget is already busted, to the tune of a $400 billion deficit. You don’t have to be a sharp-eyed deficit hawk to wonder whether we should be considering missions to Mars when our economy still looks a little shaky and we’re engaged in a costly war on terror.

An ambitious but reasonable space program, including a manned mission to Mars, can almost certainly be accomplished within NASA’s current budget, as long as cuts are made to the NASA programs which don’t serve the larger goal–programs like the space station and the shuttle, which should be retired. For the cost of the 60-some space shuttle launches in the 1990s, we could already be well on our way to sending astronauts to the Red Planet.

(3) NASA desperately needs reform. According to the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, today’s NASA is a “less technically and organizationally capable organization than the Apollo-era NASA.” The agency may still employ some of the world’s best engineers and scientists, but it is nonetheless an aging government bureaucracy, and it suffers many of the afflictions known to plague that species.

If President Bush’s grand plan is to succeed, NASA will need major reorganization. The first step in forcing such a reorganization is to impel the agency into action.

(4) What you build must depend on where you’re going. The space shuttle is a failed vehicle because it was designed with no clear destination in mind; it was built just to go up and down. This is a complete reversal of the successful space program of the 1960s, in which all our vehicles were dedicated to bringing us closer to the lunar landings.

As President Bush’s proposal moves from vision to execution, it will be important that the hardware is designed to serve the ultimate goal. Logically, that goal must be Mars: Of all the plausible destinations, Mars offers the most interesting opportunities for exploration, the most intriguing lines of scientific inquiry, and the best likelihood of eventual human settlement. Any other plans and hardware–such as a return to the Moon–must be subsidiary to the ultimate goal of a manned mission to Mars. To save money, accelerate the program, and maximize the value of lunar testing for Mars missions, it is imperative that any lunar missions be conducted with a modified version of the hardware intended for the Mars goal.

(5) Don’t let things get out of hand. In 1989, President George H. W. Bush laid out his own vision for the future of America’s manned space program, which included a mission to Mars by 2019 (in time for the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing). Three months after he made his announcement, NASA planners handed him a proposal with a price tag of $450 billion–an impossible sum. If the White House had kept a tighter leash on the planners, such an utterly unrealistic proposal would never have seen the light of day; instead, the bloated budget killed the whole project.

The lesson here is not to let any aspect of the new space program spiral out of control. Don’t get bogged down in fantastical plans. Don’t let the engineers make unnecessarily complex designs. Don’t bring on international partners that will just slow us down. Always keep things simple. The best way to insure this is to impose demanding deadlines on the program. Remember Apollo: A fast-moving program gathers less moss.

(6) Get ready for the critics and cynics. Some critics of President Bush’s new vision for NASA will quibble with the goals or the details or the timetable. Some critics will question the cost. Some will wonder whether robots could do the exploration work better than people. Others will say we shouldn’t be spending any money on space; after all, the familiar refrain goes, we should fix our problems here on Earth first. Most of these critics can be argued and reasoned with.

Others, though, will no doubt disparage the president’s plan as a brazen election-year ploy–an attempt to stir up memories of a bygone era of American achievement just to boost the president’s poll numbers. For these cynics, the only refutation will be in a serious space program that proves them wrong by outlasting the election season.

But in some ways, the worst critics are those that find no inspiration in discovery and exploration, challenge and adventure–those whose souls have forgotten how to wonder. For them, we can only have pity, and hold out a hope that someday they’ll share our joy in this journey to the stars.

Adam Keiper is managing editor of The New Atlantis: A Journal of Technology and Society.



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