The Moon and Mars

15 January 2004

The Moon and Mars: Another False Dawn?

By Gwynne Dyer

When President John F. Kennedy promised in 1961 to send Americans to the Moon before the end of the decade, he meant it — and it happened only eight years later. When President George H.W. Bush proposed to begin “the permanent settlement of space” on the 20th anniversary of the first Moon landing in 1989, he meant it too — but NASA came up with a total budget of $400 billion, and Congress killed it. When President George W. Bush announced last Wednesday that he was going to send Americans back to the Moon AND to Mars, however, practically nobody believed it.

It’s the right plan if you want the human race to get out into the universe: permanent lunar bases by 2020, and manned missions to Mars by 2030. But the new money for NASA in the current plan is ridiculously small: Mr. Bush will only ask Congress for one billion dollars split over the next five years. He also proposes to move $11 billion of the $86 billion currently earmarked for other NASA projects over the next five years into the Moon and Mars project, but that’s it. The total amount of money that will be spent on this plan under the Bush administration, even if he serves for another four years, is $12 billion.

There’s no point in getting outraged about it. It’s Mr Bush’s election-year ploy to win popular support by doing the ‘vision thing’ (as his father used to put it). It’s also an attempt to divert attention from the simultaneous announcements that the US will pull out of the International Space Station as soon as its legal obligation to help finish it is discharged, leaving other countries to operate and maintain it, and will scrap the space shuttles by 2010. Yet the world may yet derive some benefit from Mr Bush’s empty rhetoric.

It really is a good idea to go back to the Moon and onward to Mars, for reasons so long-term that they barely get mentioned in the usual debates: the survival of the human race, and contact with extraterrestrial life. The pay-off on these two issues, if it ever comes, is probably at least several centuries in the future — but they are still very important issues.

In the short run, a permanent human presence on the Moon or even on Mars does little to enhance the survivability of the human race, since such settlements would remain tiny and totally dependent on support from Earth. But technological advances accumulate, the energy available to modify inhospitable environments increases almost exponentially, and what is unimaginable now may be quite feasible in a hundred years’ time.

It really would be a good idea to spread the human race to a few more places (or many more), because keeping all our eggs in the single vulnerable basket called Earth is not a smart long-term survival strategy if we have any alternatives. We don’t yet, but it would be a good idea to start working on them. And even if it turns out that we don’t create permanent colonies anywhere else in the Solar System, we have to learn how to get around our own neighbourhood before we go to the stars.

At this point in the argument, it is traditional for clever people with bored voices to explain why the laws of physics mean that interstellar travel is forever impossible. But the laws of physics have already been overturned at least once by new knowledge, and it is possible that even now we don’t know everything. If we can get out into the wider universe, then we should, both because it enhances the human race’s chances of surviving local disasters back here and because we might eventually make contact with other intelligent species.

(Are they really there? Nobody knows, but every month sees the discovery of more planets circling nearby stars, and the chemical building blocks of life are present even in interstellar gas clouds.)

None of this can possibly happen, even in the long term, unless we take the first steps out into deep space in the short term. Since there are no short-term pay-offs to manned space exploration and settlement that are likely to repay the huge investments that are required, and since the political process does not favour really long-term investment, the only incentive that will actually get governments to spend this kind of money on space is a ‘space race’ that involves national pride and prestige. So isn’t it fortunate that Mr Bush has made going back to the Moon an American national goal, and that Beijing has declared its intention of putting a Chinese spaceman on the Moon by 2010 (well before any American is scheduled to arrive)?

Mr Bush hasn’t put his money where his mouth is yet, but either he or his successor is likely to find himself in a race to the Moon, like it or not. That might finally shake enough money loose to get a real American space programme up and running again. It doesn’t really matter which country does the work of opening up the Solar System, but it would certainly help to have America in the race.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 8. (“There’s…rhetoric”;and “Are…clouds”)