Politics & Policy

Mission Worth It?

Space haters vs. lovers on heading to Mars.

President Bush wants to put a manned base on the moon, then send a manned mission to Mars. What are the pros and cons?

There are two main camps in the space debate. Space is a waste of money, say those who believe government can solve our earthly woes. But the space haters aren’t just hankering for NASA’s money. Many believe space exploration serves no useful purpose. So we find a fossilized microbe on Mars, they ask. So what?

Space lovers, in contrast, are a hopeful lot. They seek to conquer space for sheer glory’s sake. And space-o-philes don’t just crave evidence of life; they intend the colonization of space to remake human society. Space lovers even expect to save the world–by giving humans a new home in case a stray asteroid, or ecological disaster, threaten Earth. Dreams like this keep the space lovers going.

In the middle sits the public, fascinated by space travel, yet easily bored, discouraged by failure, and concerned about costs. I’m in that middle. Yes, space conquest is inspiring and worthwhile. I support the president’s intentions. Yet I’m skeptical of the space lovers’ bolder plans and claims. Unfortunately, this middle ground is poorly represented in public debate. Instead we generally find heated polemics between know-nothing space haters and know-it-all space lovers.

Anne Applebaum’s recent Washington Post op-ed, “Mission to Nowhere,” packed a powerful space-hating punch. Why, Applebaum asks, would anyone want to travel to a hostile, lifeless environment like Mars? You wouldn’t want to raise your kids there. And though scientists and politicians downplay it, says Applebaum, cosmic radiation will likely fry any men on Mars. Our Martian rover may be working, but hasn’t the space station sprung a leak? Dangerous manned expeditions, says Applebaum, yield fewer scientific results than cheaper robotic missions. And space exploration has relatively little practical application. Finding evidence of ancient microbes will neither “heal our cosmic loneliness,” nor lead to the construction of condo units on Mars. In short, asks Applebaum, what’s the point?

Applebaum’s anti-space screed drew quick replies from space-loving bloggers Rand Simberg and Mark Whittington. Didn’t Senator Daniel Webster sneer at the desolate desert that became California and the American southwest, asks Whittington? Would you want to raise your kids in the Arctic? Explorers went there anyway, says Simberg. And Inuit do raise their kids at high latitudes. Like adaptive Eskimo, we’ll learn how to live on Mars. Is the space station leaking? Then spaceships will carry repair tools, says Simberg, like the whaling ships of old. Whittington would gladly raise kids on Mars: “I wonder if a Martian settlement, by its nature, would have crime, drugs, or bad schools.” As for practicality, says Whittington, how about expanded opportunities for commerce, not to mention saving the human race from an Earthly apocalypse. On human versus robotic science, Simberg says Applebaum is just plain wrong. Robots may cost less, but men deliver far more science. So there you have it. Space lovers versus space haters.

Space haters often get it wrong. In 1926, British scientist, A. W. Bickerton, noting how much power it would take to escape Earth’s gravity, assured us that space travel was impossible. Days before Apollo 11 carried the first men to the moon, demonstrators decried the waste of money. Still, there’s something troubling about the space lovers’ use of analogies for answers.

Yes, we conquered inhospitable Everest, “because it’s there.” But there are no Everest condos, and lots of climbers died. Is Mars California, or Everest? It makes a difference. Whaling ships carried repair equipment, but that was cost effective because whalers brought back whale oil. Will a moon base lead to profitable mining, or will it always be an expensive outpost? And don’t forget how many whalers went down.

Space lovers take it for granted that space conquest can be understood on the model of earthly exploration. But while terrestrial analogies may illuminate, they prove nothing. If Mars is like Everest, we’ll get glory–but little practical benefit, much expense, and great danger. If Mars is more like the American frontier, we’ll get a fundamental transformation of the human environment, massive practical benefits–and great danger. Space lovers look up and see California. I see something between Pasadena and Mt. Everest–but ultimately, a great deal closer to Everest.

Some space lovers seem to know this. Take Adam Keiper, whose thoughtful piece, “A New Vision for NASA,” is a space-debate must-read (see also his NRO piece). Keiper dismisses many of the justifications for space travel. Space mining is unlikely to be cost-effective. The economics of space tourism are questionable. Years of science on the space shuttle and space station have yielded little of practical use. Since human extinction isn’t looming, we don’t need to invest in a second home. The real reason to send men into space, says Keiper, is sheer inspiration. Man’s first steps on the moon, the flags, the golf balls–that’s what we remember, and that’s what’s important. There’s truth here. Yet Keiper’s inspirational justification for manned space travel raises questions. Having conceded much of the space haters’ case, Keiper leaves us with a justification impervious to argument. Either you’re compelled to challenge the void, or you’re not.

There’s another problem with a purely inspirational rationale for space exploration. If nothing beyond the thrill of conquest pushes us into space, we’ll lose heart after failure–and lose interest after success. The European explorers were out to discover a lucrative trade route East. They settled for colonies in the New World. Was discovery driven by the quest for glory and adventure? Sure. But the drive for glory was bound up with the thirst for money, resources, territory, and military advantage. That’s why the deaths of adventurous young men didn’t spell the end of the enterprise. Something beyond glory was driving them on. That’s what kept those royal subsidies coming.

Space lovers complain about America’s lack of will–about a public that has lost the taste for risk and adventure. Cultural changes since the Sixties may in some respects have weakened our national will. Yet something else is at work in our on again, off again love affair with space.

The most famous example of space ennui is the cancellation of the final Apollo moon landings. The near disaster of Apollo 13 almost finished the program. Apollo 14’s success brought reprieve. Yet the public lost interest, and the program was canceled after Apollo 17. Even the loss of three robotic Mars probes at the end of the nineties came close to ending the space program.

This easy public discouragement exasperates space lovers. We didn’t discover the New World, win the West, or conquer Everest by backing down after a few failures or deaths. Yet the situations aren’t comparable. Mountain climbers don’t depend on massive government subsidies when they put their lives at risk. When we collectively invest in a venture whose only real payoff is glory, failure is discouraging. Even success is a turnoff. Fly me to the moon with conquest as my only goal, and I’ll be out the door after I’ve got what I want.

This is the real weakness of the space lovers’ case. Space lovers rest an awful lot on visionary inspiration. What the space program lacks, say the lovers, is vision. The shuttle is a useless link in a nonexistent chain of vehicles and settlements that is supposed to point us to the moon and Mars. Like the shuttle, the space station lacks any real purpose, and is consequently plagued by cost overruns, delays, and technological promises that don’t pan out. Set a bold goal for the space program, we’re assured, and the purpose and efficiency of the original NASA will return.

The administration has bought this argument. And up to a point, I think it’s correct. The shuttle and the space station have no clear purpose. A difficult, inspiring goal will attract new blood and reduce bureaucratic inefficiencies. Still, I wonder if “the vision thing” fully explains NASA’s post-Apollo blues.

It’s possible that persistent problems with cost overruns, delays, and disappointing technology means that manned space travel is simply not cost-effective. The demands of space travel may be of such a different order than sea faring was during the age of discovery that our technology simply cannot keep pace without a prohibitive level of public investment. Of course, cost-effectiveness must be measured against some goal. By choosing a bold and intangible goal like the glory of Martian conquest, we disguise the cost problem for a time (although the Earthly protests continue all the while). But as soon as we get the glory, the price of further exploration becomes unacceptable.

Applebaum is wrong that cosmic radiation rules out a mission to Mars altogether. But Applebaum is right that the medical challenge of a mission to Mars is of a radically different order than anything we’ve seen so far. (Jerome Groopman’s extraordinary New Yorker piece on Martian medicine makes that clear.) Whether we can meet the technological challenge, at what cost, and when, are open questions.

But what if the dyed-in-the-wool space lovers are right? What if private companies can compete to open up space, relieving the government of the need for massive subsidies, and putting individuals into space at their own risk–climbers on Everest? I suspect the threshold costs are too high for private businesses to play a serious role in getting us to Mars or the moon. And I don’t think prizes or tax breaks will change this.

As for the idea of a clean Martian slate, where human society can be freed of its chronic conflicts, this is utopianism at its most naive. If Martian settlements are controlled enough to be free of crime and conflict, they’ll be too small to matter. If settlements are big enough to accommodate a significant population, they’ll be troubled by Earthly conflicts. And I doubt large settlements will ever be cost-effective–at least in any time frame that matters.

Does all this mean we should abandon the idea of a moon base or a manned mission to Mars? Not at all. If the moon and Mars are less than California, they’re more than Everest. The commercial spin-offs, the medical and scientific knowledge that come out of these missions–and yes, the glory of discovery and renewed national purpose–are real and important benefits.

But the risks and limitations of this project are real. Even with an inspiring vision to organize our efforts, the challenge may prove beyond our current technological or financial capacity. And astronauts could die, perhaps discouraging the public before the goal is achieved. If we do reach Mars, boredom may set in quickly.

My guess is that there is no permanent space age in the offing–no colonization, no commercial playground, and certainly no social utopia. The fitful progress of the past will repeat itself well into the future. Yet that progress was real. We went to the moon. That was the right thing to do, as is this new quest. But mankind is slowly discovering that the challenge of space is not strictly analogous to anything we’ve encountered before. So much the more reason to go.

Members of the National Review editorial and operational teams are included under the umbrella “NR Staff.”

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