Too High?
Back to the moon and beyond.


Suppose that you were to sit down and calculate the total amount you and your family will spend on automobiles–purchase price, interest on loans, fuel, insurance, repairs, and so on–over the next 25 years. The number would probably startle you. It would probably be well over the price of a new home. That big, round figure would in and of itself suggest all manner of non-automotive possibilities. It might even make a car seem a bad idea. Of course, that number would not in and of itself allow for the fact that those automobiles would produce some returns, probably among them transportation to and from the job in which you make the money to pay for them and then some.

So it is with the loudest argument being raised in opposition to the president’s program to return Americans to the moon and, if all goes well, on to Mars. Opponents object on three main grounds, really, none of which survives thoughtful scrutiny:

The space program should be conducted entirely in the private sector.

We can’t do it. Critics point to a multitude of problems that we would face in establishing a presence on the moon and in a trip to Mars.

It costs too much. There are problems here on Earth on which the money should be spent.

Considering them in order, the privatization of space exploration is, ceteris paribus, a fine idea, but it misses an important fact: We left an American flag, not a “no trespassing” sign, on the moon, and in 31 years the private sector has failed to go there, or even get to low Earth orbit. The private sector, though involved in some fledgling launch efforts and successful in the construction of commercial satellites, has not found the means to get far off the ground. Some kinds of research and development seem to get done only under the aegis of government. It was 35 years ago that a Defense Department agency, DARPA, got the idea of linking together computers at research facilities. Over time, DARPAnet turned into something now known as the Internet. The situation is getting worse, not better. “Simply put, much more D–development–is being done,” noted Charles M. Vest, president of MIT, in a 2002 speech, “but less R–research at the frontier, or of longer-term potential–is being done.” A project such as the one Bush proposes would do much to reverse the trend.

As to the second argument, given voice by Paul Davies in the New York Times thusly, “Without some radical improvements in technology, the prospects for sending astronauts on a roundtrip to Mars any time soon are slim, whatever the presidential rhetoric,” there is this to be said: Of course we can’t do it. That’s why the president did not announce that we’d leave for Mars the day after tomorrow. We couldn’t fly to the moon in 1961, either, when President Kennedy announced his plan for us to do so before the end of the decade. Much of the value in space exploration is in the identification and solution of problems. “With the experience and knowledge gained on the moon, we will then be ready to take the next steps of space exploration: human missions to Mars and to worlds beyond,” said Bush. We go when the problems are solved. And in the course of solving those problems we make technological advances that have uses other than space exploration. The electronics revolution we all enjoy–the computer on which you are reading this–was greatly advanced by inventions that would not exist but for the space program of the 1960s.

“I think very little in the way of enduring value is going to come out of putting man on the moon,” said Philip Abelson, director of the Carnegie Institution’s Geophysical Laboratory and editor of Science. “We would have put in a lot of engineering talent and research and wound up being the laughing stock of the world.” Abelson made his remarks in 1963.

It is a matter of historical fact that the most difficult problems get solved only when they must get solved. Penicillin languished on a laboratory shelf for a decade until World War II and the resulting need for effective ways of fighting infection forced the allies to develop a way to produce it in quantity. Establishment of a moon base and, later, an excursion to Mars, would force the development of technologies of great importance in the energy and environmental realms as well as many other fields. “The moon is home to abundant resources,” Bush said, allowing for development of products of value in further exploration and, perhaps here, as well as development of new technologies. Once developed, they would quickly find their way to mainstream, Earth-bound use, just as the development of cheap, reliable semiconductors in the 1960s led to everything from cellular telephones to personal computers to digital photography. There is more to space development than Tang and form-fitting mattresses.

The most misleading of the arguments is the one having to do with cost. The number being batted around–$1 trillion–was apparently pulled by someone from the thin vacuum of space. It is a made-up number. A fabrication. It apparently derives from the half-trillion dollars NASA (kicking up its heels in delight) estimated would be the cost of a gold-plated moon base and trip to Mars when George H. W. Bush proposed it in 1989. Someone, somewhere, applied some goofy mathematical spinning to the price of NASA’s 1989 wish list and came up with the $1 trillion figure. It’s worth remembering that NASA didn’t get its wish list. The president’s proposal would increase NASA’s budget by very little.

How is this possible? Easy. “We will begin the program quickly, using existing programs and personnel,” the president said. The space shuttle, a giant sop of NASA’s budget and one of the few aspects of the space program that has returned little of scientific or technological value, will be phased out, gone entirely by 2010. Military space-launch programs will be incorporated more closely into NASA’s activities, reducing duplication of costs. Contractors, who benefit most from the spin-offs of research and development, will be expected to bear more of the R&D costs themselves.

But let us suppose that it does end up costing a trillion dollars. Here is where the automobile example above comes into play. The money involved would be spent over many years–at least a quarter century–and a well-run space program more than pays its own way. Indeed, that’s very nearly the definition of a well-run space program.

Those who argue that we shouldn’t go to the moon and Mars because there are things to be done here on Earth are guilty of lapses of logic which are nearly unforgivable. “How are they going to pay for all this?,” goes a typical argument, stated by a Flint, Mich., resident in an Associated Press poll published Tuesday. “I don’t see how it’s morally justifiable. In Flint, there isn’t a school roof that doesn’t leak.” Setting aside whether it is the job of the federal government to send roofers to Flint, Mich., it’s important to note the common logical error of assuming that it’s either-or, that if we don’t go to the moon we’ll fix the roofs in Flint instead. The “a nation that can go to the moon ought to be able to . . .” phenomenon has been around since, well, since the nation went to the moon. That is not, of course, how it works. When we have a well-defined space goal, people are put to work. They pay taxes. The contractors for whom they work pay taxes. The economic engine turns. And Flint becomes better able to fix its own roofs, not inconceivably employing methods and materials developed by–the space program, whose roofs will need to be somewhat more impenetrable than even those in Flint, Mich.

It’s not a zero-sum game, and arguing that it is makes as much sense as saying that we shouldn’t build a house because there are so many improvements that can be made to the cave. The new space initiative is about creating something where nothing existed before. And we’re the ones to do it. “Although goals have varied over time, the commitment to a U.S. presence in space has never wavered,” notes a 1994 Rand report. “As part of that commitment, the country has developed a large infrastructure to support space operations, a pool of expertise matched by few nations, a very capable industrial base, and a network of international partnerships. The nation derives substantial benefits from space for defense, communications, science, and a number of other applications.” In that report, no project was seen as having more potential benefit–economically, inspirationally, and in improving the quality of life on Earth–than a lunar base. “And along this journey,” the president said Wednesday, “we’ll make many technological breakthroughs. We don’t know yet what those breakthroughs will be. But we can be certain they’ll come and that our efforts will be repaid many times over.” If history is any measure, he is right.

The lesson is not lost on other nations, notably China. Gu Yidong, a director of China’s manned spaceflight program, gets it: “With the further development of space technologies, outer space application will turn out to be an important driving force for China’s economic and social development,” Gu told Xinhua, the Chinese news agency, in October.

In short, a program of the sort the president envisions would more than pay its own way, even as ownership of an automobile is more often than not economically sound. That NASA wanted a Ferrari in 1989 means nothing, because the president is not proposing to buy them one. Instead, he’s put the space agency on notice: He’ll usher through enough to get the new space vision started; after that, he said, “Future funding decisions will be guided by the progress that we make in achieving these goals.” Fancy that: funding tied to performance!

There are questions that can and should be legitimately be asked about Bush’s proposal. Can NASA turn itself around, restore to itself the kind of ethic that made its achievements of the 1960s among America’s proudest? Will NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe be able to wring the pork out of an agency that in many ways has become just another piece of the bureaucracy, and will he be able to ride herd over the disparate interests which must work together to bring the plan to fruition? Do we still have the national ability to focus on a goal that by its nature must span several presidencies, in a time when demagoguery, easy fixes, and flat-out lies are a growing part of our political discourse?

Setting up a residence on the moon and visiting Mars will not be easy tasks. The public and political response to the president’s plan will say less about the plan than it will about what we as a nation have become. “We need to see and examine and touch for ourselves,” Bush said. “And only human beings are capable of adapting to the inevitable uncertainties posed by space travel.” How the plan is accepted will tell much of whether our curiosity remains alive.

It’s certainly worth thinking about, while you are, say, driving to work.

Dennis E. Powell is a freelance writer specializing in techno-political subjects. He is at work on a history of the space-shuttle program.