To Infinity, and Beyond!
White House staff have announced that President Bush will declare a major new space initiative in a speech next week, bootstrapping on the ongoing success of the Mars Spirit mission. The initiative will reportedly include returning to the Moon and making substantial progress on a mission to Mars within ten years. The key issues will be the scope of the initiative, whether the Moon is even an appropriate destination, how President Bush proposes to pay for the initiative.
At a time of escalating budget deficits and job losses, with our military overcommitted and overextended, and with state and local governments increasingly squeezed and scrambling to pay for education, infrastructure, and other programs, the cost of any new space initiative will be a critical factor. With John McCain and other fiscal conservatives already characterizing the President’s current budget as a drunken spending spree, there is a real question as to the feasibility of taking on a major new space initiative. A specific proposal for funding is needed if the space initiative is to be anything more than more spend and don’t tax Republicanism.
As for the scope of the initiative, there are other places to go besides the Moon. There are four potential objectives: the Moon, Mars, L-5, and a space elevator. President Bush is proposing a return to the Moon. Other than a visit to past glory, we need to ask why the Moon? What is there to be gained? What can we achieve? What can we gain?
Mars is certainly the sexiest objective, but also the most difficult and the riskiest. Two-thirds of the remote vehicle missions sent to Mars have failed. That success ratio needs to be dramatically improved before we undertake the risk of a manned mission to Mars. A manned mission would also be far more difficult and expensive than the recent remote missions. First, a manned mission cannot be left on Mars. The mass of fuel, supplies, and other materials required for a return mission would be difficult to send from Earth, and an advance mission of remote supply vehicles may need to be sent to Mars in advance in order to provide the supplies necessary for a return mission. Beyond the engineering challenges, the medical challenges are daunting because we do not yet know how to keep people in space and protect them from the solar radiation for the six months trip to Mars and the return trip.
Lagrange Point 5, L-5, is the least sexy of the potential objectives and one of the more practical. L-5 is one of the points between the Earth and the Moon where the gravity of the two bodies is balanced. A space station placed at L-5 would be stable. If we are interested in establishing a permanent presence in space and building the infrastructure for travel to Mars or other points in our solar system, the L-5 is the place to be.
A space elevator might seem like the most far-fetched proposal, but it would be the most practical. One of the greatest challenges in space exploration is escaping Earth’s gravity. A space elevator would greatly reduce the cost of lifting payloads above Earth orbit. Reportedly, engineering and material science have advanced to the point of making a space elevator a feasible near term goal. A space elevator would both benefit existing commercial use of space, encourage other projects, and support a Mars mission.
With the November presidential election accelerating towards us, the political ramifications of President Bush’s space initiative will be crucial. In the election year calculus, a major new space initiative is golden. President Bush can use it to offer a grand vision without having to present specific costs or describe how it will be paid for. Also, it forces the Democratic candidates to respond and presents the chance that they will seem churlish and limited in vision if they question how we might pay for any major new space program and what benefits we might gain. Still, in a time of budget deficits and increasing demands on government at all levels, those questions need to be asked.
One of the things that is most striking about President Bush’s proposed space initiative is how it seems to fit into an overall pattern of remaking the 60s. With U.S. troops already committed into a lengthening war of occupation and now with a new program to put us into a space race with China, it looks as if the Bush administration is attempting to refight the culture wars by replicating the 1960s in this, the first decade of the 21st Century.
We will need to dust off our copies of Whitey on the Moon