Quick quiz: What major political figure said the following: “We must commit ourselves anew to a sustained program of manned exploration of the solar system and, yes, the permanent settlement of space. We must commit ourselves to a future where Americans and citizens of all nations will live and work in space.” Was it President Bush, who recently announced a new program of space exploration, beginning with a return to the Moon and continuing with manned trips to Mars and beyond? Well, yes and no. It was a President Bush who spoke those words — but it was our current president’s father, back in 1989, on the twentieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing on the Moon. Now, in yet another chapter of the Bush family psychodrama, Bush the Younger has proposed a vision for manned space exploration almost identical to that submitted by his father. And, like his father’s plan, this most recent administration proposal should also go nowhere.
The first problem with President Bush’s new program of space exploration is its excessive emphasis on manned (as opposed to robotic) travel through space. To be sure, manned exploration of the cosmos carries a certain mystique, and evokes the epic adventures of terrestrial explorers in centuries gone by. But putting people in space is also far more dangerous and expensive than exploring the heavens with unmanned spacecraft — and not necessarily any more productive in terms of scientific experimentation and discovery. Bush’s plan, then, appears to prioritize psychological appeal over genuine interest in what lies beyond our humble little planet.
A second reason for objecting to Bush’s proposal is its lack of creativity. Thirty-five years after the Apollo landings, despite the countless technological advances that have occurred in the interim, our president’s bold new vision calls for a return to the one celestial body that people have already conquered. While it will be fascinating to see the images of another Moon landing, the whole undertaking seems a bit like King George III in 1774 saying, “You know, Captain Cook’s discovery of Antarctica really boosted my popularity last year. Let’s have him discover it again!” Or, the year after Edmund Hillary first climbed Mount Everest, Winston Churchill’s declaring a new national goal of having a Brit ascend earth’s highest peak. Discovery, unfortunately, is a one-time thing, and we should therefore be devoting our space program to new challenges and opportunities — not a return to the accomplishments of the 1960s.
The most fundamental problem with Bush’s proposal, though, is the administration’s duplicity over its expected cost. To fund the development of the new Crew Exploration Vehicle, a series of manned flights to the Moon, the building of a permanent lunar base, and eventually the exploration of Mars, Bush has proposed precisely $1 billion in additional spending over the next five years. He would also re-allocate $11 billion that is currently earmarked for other NASA projects. If that price tag is even remotely reasonable, then the substantive objections to Bush’s plan largely vanish. Even if traveling to the Moon is a bit redundant, and there is some scientific value to traversing the Moon’s barren plains, these complaints seem like sour grapes given the proposal’s bargain-basement price.
But, as with tax cuts and the war in Iraq, the real cost of Bush’s space exploration plan is likely to be astronomically higher than the numbers now being bandied about. As Gregg Easterbrook notes in The New Republic, the development of the space shuttle cost about $100 billion; the elder President Bush’s proposal in 1989 had a projected $400-500 billion price tag (the reason why it never left the drawing board); and the Saturn V rocket (the propulsion device for the Apollo missions) alone cost $40 billion to design and produce. Bush’s proposed spending on space exploration is therefore laughably inadequate for meeting his plan’s extraordinarily ambitious goals. On the other hand, the necessary funds for the conquest of the Moon and Mars — surely amounting to hundreds of billions of dollars — are utterly unaffordable given the country’s current budget situation.
Given these fiscal realities, it is difficult to see Bush’s new vision for space exploration as anything other than a cheap political ploy. He (or his advisers) must know that lunar bases and missions to Mars are enormously expensive endeavors, and that the proposed five-year funding for these projects is a drop in the proverbial bucket. At best, then, Bush may realize that the country cannot afford his proposal at the moment, but hope to lay the foundation for future successes in space (funded, of course, by future presidents). At worst — and probably closer to the truth — Bush may simply be wrapping himself in the mantle of leadership as an election year rolls around, without any intention of backing his rhetoric with the dollars it demands.