Saturday, January 17, 2004

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By William Fisher

What was he thinking?

Was he thinking at all?

Or were others doing his thinking?

I refer here to President Bush’s proposal to establish a human settlement on the moon and launch a manned flight to Mars. It’s hard to know the answers to these questions. But it doesn’t take an astrophysicist to figure out that there’s something very wrong with this picture.

Specifically, there are four things wrong with it: First, the priorities. Second, the cost. Third, the science. Fourth, the politics.

The Priorities. All of us admire leaders with big ideas. But we also expect our leaders to have some sense of what’s most important, and when it’s important. Mr. Bush seems to have neither. Is there no one in this Administration with the courage to tell the President there are still a few things left undone here on earth? Like helping the millions of Americans who live below the poverty line? Like ensuring that working parents and their kids have health insurance? Like making sure that the No Child Left Behind program is fully funded? Like having the resources needed to fight terrorism, rebuild Iraq and Afghanistan, and bring democracy to the Middle East? Like finding enough money to mount a really grown-up program to combat HIV-AIDS? Even the President of the United States cannot have an unlimited laundry list.

The Cost. If this President is a fiscal conservative, Herbert Hoover was Santa Claus. George Bush spends money like a sailor with 24-hour shore leave. He cuts taxes at the same time, plunging the nation into massive deficits that will persist until our great-grandchildren are getting around with walkers. In 1989, George W. Bush’s father made a similar, but less ambitious proposal. NASA estimated the cost at some $400 billion. To implement the president’s current proposal, we are looking at costs in excess of a trillion dollars. Has anyone in the White House taken the time to figure out where it’s all going to come from?

The Science. The technology that evolved into the Space Shuttle program is now geriatric. For at least the past decade, there has been a serious scientific debate about the value of manned space flight. It would be an egregious error for the US to abandon space exploration, nor is there any possibility of that happening. But trying to avoid that error by continuing to focus on obsolete and exorbitantly expensive hardware has to be a step backward. The success of NASA's current Mars venture appears to reaffirm that unmanned missions are every bit as valuable, as well as a lot less risky. Most scientists who are actually involved in the space program believe we can do as much and learn as much through unmanned space exploration. And that this can be achieved through incremental increases in NASA’s budget – at a fraction of the cost.

The Politics. Forgive my cynicism, but I have to observe that unmanned space flight is not very sexy. It provides no photo ops, no opportunities to land on a carrier deck and proclaim ‘mission accomplished’. Does one detect the fine hand of that master alchemist Karl Rove in this proposal? Does the year 2004 figure anywhere in the president’s calculus? After all, Howard Dean never put a man on Mars! Is it conceivable that Mr. Bush’s latest space adventure is being driven by the bluntest instrument in the politicians’ toolkit: changing the subject? Isn’t that what politicians do when things aren’t going so well? Well, they aren’t. Mr. Bin Laden is still at large The President’s tax cuts have not magically resuscitated the economy. Unemployment remains unacceptably high and the promised new jobs just aren’t. We continue to face enormous problems in Iraq and Afghanistan, not to mention democratizing the Middle East or getting the Saudis to stop funding terror groups. Can anyone think of a better time to change the subject?

But if we find it too embarrassing to believe that our president would inject reelection politics into so serious an issue as our future in space, we do have another alternative: Mr. Bush’s latest extravagance is merely another faith-based initiative. Or maybe we should say space-based initiative!