ONE of the great old chestnuts of science fiction writing involves earthlings uniting in the face of a Martian invasion. A more modern, equally persistent, clich'e involves uniting earthlings behind a joint expedition to Mars. Joint, in this case, means US-Soviet. Oddly, this is one of those clich'es that make a lot of sense. As noted in this column before, it's not too late for the Reagan administration to grab credit for helping start such an enterprise. Remember that President Kennedy got much of the credit for America's moon landing, although most of the money, the training, and the giant step onto the dusty moon surface arrived on Lyndon Johnson's watch. There's nothing quite like giving the go-ahead to a project for getting listed high in the cast credits. Ask Queen Isabella.
Why a joint Mars expedition?
Aren't the US and Soviet negotiators' platters full just trying for a big reduction in long-range nuclear missiles and a May/June fourth summit meeting? Not to mention a phase-out of the Afghanistan war; a bargain on emigration from the USSR in exchange for relaxing trade restrictions; and perhaps even a deal on the Mideast.
In practical terms, that list is too long for the Super Two to finish in what amounts to eight months before a government-elect begins to form in Washington. But that should not deter President Reagan from considering at least US-Soviet exploration of the idea of a joint Mars mission. What are the pluses and minuses? First some minuses:
Any manned Mars project will be immensely costly and should not be contracted for hastily by a lame-duck administration. Estimates of the total cost run from $50 billion to $100 billion and up.
The American space program is still in disarray and would only dramatize its inferior position in a joint Mars project. NASA ought to recover its prestige first. Moscow has plans for a Mars picture mission next summer, a surface exploration in 1992 or '94, soil sample retrievals in '96 or '98, and a manned landing in the first decade of the next century. The Soviets would want the joint launch from their pad.
At a time when Washington ought to be bargaining tough on (1) terms for withdrawing aid to the Afghan rebels, (2) reduction of conventional arms in Europe as well as long-range missiles, and (3) emigration and trade terms, a Mars cooperation announcement could lead to official and public relaxation.
With Moscow and Washington facing major economic belt-tightening to remain world-competitive, they can't afford to speed up such a super-expensive project that will bear fruit only in the next century. Meanwhile, Japan, the Pacific Rim exporters, and Western Europe would benefit from such superpower diversion of funds.
Now the pluses:
If a joint manned Mars mission is costly, think what two competing missions will run the respective taxpayers.
We're only talking about a beginning of the beginning here. The first stage of the enterprise should be simply a joint exploration of its feasibility, timing, and cost. That's relatively inexpensive.
Any feasibility study should consider Japanese and European participation.
If Reagan and his successors really want to make SDI (and the Soviet missile defense program) seem less threatening, a move to cooperate in space would be effective.
Precisely because the Reagan administration should be bargaining tough on Afghanistan, conventional arms in Europe, Iran, and trade, it would help to have a constructive, long-range program like the Mars mission being discussed in parallel.
Many arguments can be made against a Mars expedition: Mankind will only pollute the sterile Martian surface and thin atmosphere. We ought to solve our problems on Earth before escaping elsewhere. The problems of life support on an essentially ``dead'' planet are gigantic.
But ask physicists, astronomers, or the average bowling alley regular what instinct tells them, and you find a pervasive answer. Sometime not too far in the future the human race is going to try going out to the planets. If that instinct is right, why not negotiate a start now.
Earl W. Foell is editor in chief of The Christian Science Monitor.