The Corner

Bush and Mars

It’s too early to form a definitive opinion on the president’s plans for space. Broadly speaking, I support the president’s initiative. Nonetheless, there are concerns. Missions to the Moon and Mars are far into the future. That means the real outcome of this plan is in doubt. For the program to bear fruit, we’d need to sustain a commitment far beyond president Bush’s term in office, even if he’s reelected. In the current political and budgetary climate, serious spending increases are not workable. So most of the money will come out of the retirement of the shuttle program. That makes sense, since the shuttle is of limited use. But I worry that important scientific projects, like astronomical observation satellites, may be curtailed to pay for the Moon launch. Actually, I think the president has handled this issue well. I’m increasingly convinced that the real problem here is not with our national willingness to sustain a great project, or even with the choice between government or private funding of space ventures. The real problem here is the challenge of space itself. Space is not like the American West. It is much more physically challenging, relative to our current level of technology. Given the history of failed projects and cost overruns, it becomes increasingly clear that space may prove too expensive to conquer at our current (or even near-term future) technical level. Since we can’t know this with certainty, it makes sense to devise a program for the long term that may or may not be sustained, depending on how NASA produces. But again, the more I look into this, the more daunting it seems. Consider the Op Ed by Paul Davies in today’s New York Times (which Dennis Powell notes in his NRO piece). It proposes leaving astronauts to die on Mars as a cost effective way to explore the planet. Mars is looking a whole lot more like Mt. Everest than like California every day. But let’s not end on too pessimistic a note. Rand Simberg has put up a thoughtful response to my skeptical post of yesterday. I get more skeptical every day, but Simberg is still the man to go to for intelligent and creative ideas on how to conquer space. For all my doubts, I’d like him to succeed.

The Latest