A Countdown to Mars

Bush's space mission needs a 10-point reality check

President Bush wants a moon base by 2020 that can be a launchpad to Mars. Nice work if you can get it. First, the US needs to run down a checklist before blastoff on this M&M (moon-Mars) mission:

'10...' Double-check Mr. Bush's lofty rationales - by polls, in Congress, and among the space community.

Does a "desire to explore and understand" still exist among Americans? Has money spent so far on NASA spun off enough tangible benefits (i.e., better weather forecasting or direction-giving car devices) to justify another big technological project? Is there even a remote chance of finding evidence of life? Must the aging and shrunken shuttle fleet be retired in 2010?

The answers to all four questions will probably be yes.

'9...' Can the costs be spread out over years and among nations to avoid sticker shock, as well as budget competition from strong earthly demands such as boomer healthcare? Note that Bush invited international participation (perhaps even moon-bound China), didn't set a date for a Mars landing, and wants to snitch $11 billion already due other NASA projects.

His down payment of only $1 billion for the first five years of the mission has a car-salesman ring to it. Given the cost overruns for Nixon's shuttle program and Reagan's space station, taxpayers deserve a full- disclosure upfront.

'8...' Even with a clear price tag, how can Congress be locked into spending enough money each year to make sure a Mars landing can take place, say, in 2040? Democracies, unlike pyramid-building ancient Egypt or Great-Wall-building imperial China, have short time horizons and fickle purses.

Perhaps Congress needs to set a minimum vote count, say a two-thirds majority, to even start the project, and make sure each chamber's space committees have orders to sustain the project in full.

'7...' Build broad political support. Current space projects already have their political constituencies: space enthusiasts, aerospace industries, and the Florida/Texas/California axis of job-dependent space spending. Even Bush himself had to be nudged by a group of Democratic senators and a post-Columbia NASA to come up with this post-shuttle "vision thing." His father's 1989 pitch for a Mars mission never made liftoff.

And although he's no JFK in whooping up a moon goal, Bush needs to use his campaigning this year to create popular excitement for this multigenerational mission.

'6...' Is a Mars trip even technologically and humanly possible? One reason Bush proposed a moon base first is to work out the many potential hitches. Can the moon's minerals be tapped for fuel to launch spacecraft or sustain a colony? Can humans withstand the radiation of space for months? Any one of such problems could be a mission deal-breaker.

'5...' Reform the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. In its post-Apollo, budget-conscious mentality, NASA has been thinking too small, perhaps because most of its work is now only a few hundred miles high. It needs more innovation and discipline to avoid mistakes and come up with creative solutions. Getting to Mars is far more than rocket science.

'4...' Push robotics - as humanly as possible. The latest Mars rover, Spirit, shows just how advanced this remote technology is. To put human footprints on Mars just for the sake of doing it isn't enough. Planets can be colonized by robots, too, at least up to some still-undefined point.

'3...' Don't skimp on other NASA projects, especially the international space station, which is just coming into its own as a weightless research platform.

'2...' Create a new generation of scientists and engineers. Both in its scope and time frame, a Mars mission needs one. Rethink how science is taught in schools and provide better incentives for space careers.

'1...' Is this life-affirming project able to withstand the possibility of tragedy in space? The shuttle and Apollo programs did. But travel to Mars is far more dangerous. If Americans are ready for many sacrifices, then it's time for rocket ignition.

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