D. Dowd Muska


Earth to NASA: You’re Not Going to Mars

November 12, 2015

“If God intended we should go to Mars, why’d he put it so far away?”

-- “Atomic Sermon,” Billy Hughes & His Buckaroos, 1953

Wherever he is, Spiro Agnew should prepare to be disappointed. Again.

Richard Nixon’s vice president wanted NASA to follow up its moon missions with a trek to the Red Planet. Charged with chairing the administration’s post-Apollo planning committee, Agnew told reporters that he favored “a simple, ambitious, optimistic goal of a manned flight to Mars by the end of the century.”

His boss disagreed. So did a majority of Americans. As Neil and Buzz set foot on Luna, a Gallup poll put Mars-voyage opposition at 53 percent. The mainstream media -- including The New York Times and The Washington Post -- were skeptical. Most significantly, support from Capitol Hill was nonexistent. Sen. Clinton Anderson (D-NM), who ran his chamber’s space committee, declared that “now is not the time to commit ourselves to the goal of a manned mission to Mars.” Even lobbying by Werner von Braun, NASA’s ex-Nazi rocket guru, couldn’t reverse the zeitgeist.

On-to-Mars gave way to the expensive and astronaut-exterminating space shuttle, as well as the largely useless International Space Station. Stuck in low Earth orbit, the projects were neither exciting nor inspiring, but they kept much of the Apollo workforce employed, and secured the regular reelections of fedpols from California, Alabama, Florida, Utah, and Texas.

In 1989, on the 20th anniversary of Tranquility Base, President George H. W. Bush announced his “Space Exploration Initiative,” which set the goals of returning to the moon (“this time, back to stay”) and launching “a manned mission to Mars.”

Bush’s plan failed, spectacularly, due to an enormous price tag, no leadership from the White House, an ambivalent public, and inadequate congressional buy-in. A decade and a half later, the 41st president’s son tried the same trick, and got similar results. George W. Bush’s “Vision for Space Exploration” began to fizzle after a few years, and it was scrapped by Congress and Barack Obama.

Well, not entirely. NASA’s 2010 authorization act decreed that “a long term objective for human exploration of space should be the eventual international exploration of Mars.” So under the law, NASA remains tasked with putting bootprints on our frigid-and-dusty neighbor. The current target decade for landing is the 2030s, but The Washington Post’s Joel Achenbach noted that there are some pesky obstacles: “NASA’s flat budget won’t pay for a Mars mission. At the moment NASA can’t even get an astronaut to the International Space Station without buying a seat on a Russian rocket. A new NASA space capsule that was conceived in 2005 likely won’t be ready until 2023, according to NASA’s latest estimate, and it’s built for 21-day missions, not for trips to Mars.”

Undaunted, last month, America’s astro-bureaucracy released “NASA’s Journey to Mars: Pioneering Next Steps.” Splashy and slick, the 36-page handout boasts that the agency is “closer to sending humans to Mars than at any point in NASA’s history.”

In Congress, many were unimpressed. Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), a rabid supporter of manned spaceflight, whined that the document “contains no budget, it contains no schedule, no deadlines. It’s just some real pretty photographs and some nice words. That is not going to do it. That is not going to get us to Mars.”

Mars-expedition skeptics weren’t pleased, either. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) noted that no one could tell him how much NASA’s already spent on preparations, and that future expenditures were wholly unknown: “[W]e don’t even know how much it’s going to cost for the biggest project in NASA [history] to achieve its goal? I mean, this is insane.”

Enter NASA’s Office of Inspector General. In a new report, it found that “the Agency … faces significant challenges to ensuring the safety of crew members on a human mission to Mars.” Behavioral issues, nutritional needs, radiation exposure, “changes in vision and eye anatomy” -- at present levels of understanding, sending men to Mars is akin to sentencing them to death.

No timeline. No hardware. No money. As-yet-insurmountable risks to astronaut health. Little interest from the commander-in-chief. Weak commitment from the legislative branch. For these and at least a dozen more reasons, NASA isn’t going to Mars in the 2030s. Or 2040s. Or 2050s. It’s time to stop pretending otherwise.

Elon Musk, Rohrabacher predicts, “will be on Mars before NASA is.” Perhaps. But the Red Planet is sure to prove daunting for Earth’s rockstar tech mogul. For the federal government, it’s a doomed and dishonest frivolity.

D. Dowd Muska (www.dowdmuska.com) writes about government, economics, and technology. Follow him on Twitter @dowdmuska.

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