A couple of years ago, after hearing an engineer named Robert Zubrin rhapsodize about his plan for a privately financed expedition to Mars, I tried out the idea on America's masters of marketing. I sent an outline of the scheme to Bill Gates, Ted Turner, Barry Diller, Peter Uberroth, television executives such as ABC's Roone Arledge and NBC's Don Ohlmeyer, the leaders of DreamWorks, and a long list of other people whose names tend to be accompanied by the word visionary. I wasn't asking for money, just for their thoughts on how humanity's interplanetary adventure could be packaged profitably, but most of them didn't even want to think about it. Except for a few enthusiasts, they couldn't imagine how you could make the trip interesting enough to pay the bills. How could you hold the audience for such a long trip to such a desolate place?
"Personally," Barry Diller explained, "I don't care about going to Mars."
Personally, I did. But I didn't presume to know as much about the mass audience as Diller and his fellow moguls. They knew how short the public's attention span could be; they remembered how quickly people had gotten bored with the Apollo program. What, really, was the point of going to Mars? If the idea made any commercial sense, why wasn't someone working on it? I wondered if Zubrin was hopelessly unrealistic--until this past summer, when he managed to get 700 people from 40 countries to travel to Boulder, Colorado.
Officially, it was the founding convention of the Mars Society. Unofficially, it was the Woodstock of Mars, a horde of scientists, entrepreneurs, schoolteachers, lawyers, writers, engineers, college students, musicians, computer geeks, and assorted hustlers wearing "MARS OR BUST" buttons. They ranged from space hobbyists to the president of a company working on a privately financed mission to survey an asteroid. They debated the cost of spaceships and whether to power the Mars land rover with a nuclear reactor. They bought Mars trinkets and pictures. They analyzed details ranging from the proper Martian calendar (there are dozens of competing systems) to the mechanics of creating a breathable atmosphere on Mars.
And they cheered Zubrin, who is one of the more riveting engineer-orators in history. A short man with intense dark eyes and a passionate speaking style--he can bring to mind Savonarola--he railed at the stagnation that would afflict humans without a frontier to conquer. He extolled the Europeans who crossed the Atlantic 500 years ago to find freedom in the New World and the Africans who left the comforts of the tropics 50,000 years ago for the cold, harsh regions where they were forced to develop the tools that made civilization possible. "Humans did not leave paradise because they ate of the tree of knowledge," he proclaimed. "They ate of the tree of knowledge because they left paradise." The audience gave him a two-minute standing ovation.
In some ways it was reminiscent of the passion for space back in the 1960s, but not even the moon landings had ever aroused such a zealous corps of volunteer mission planners. These people wanted much more than another Apollo program, whose achievements they dismissed as "flags and footprints." Their heroes were from earlier eras of exploration: Columbus, the Pilgrims, Lewis and Clark, the settlers of the American West. As they put it in their society's founding declaration, "The settling of the Martian New World is an opportunity for a noble experiment in which humanity has another chance to shed old baggage and begin the world anew."
They were dangerously close to utopianism--which at first seemed odd, given that Zubrin and a good many of the others are libertarians. Ordinarily, libertarians are too busy opposing politicians' utopian schemes to be preaching their own. But as they fantasized about casting off the chains of earthly governments, the Mars-libertarian connection began to make sense. Mars gives libertarians a rare chance to be for something, to present a grand vision of freedom instead of merely trying to fend off the latest excesses of big government. Building the future is a splendid alternative to the drudgery of deregulating and privatizing the present. Spaceships and extraterrestrial colonies evoke the sort of emotions inspired by cathedrals in the Middle Ages--or, to use a more recent example, by modern architecture in The Fountainhead.
Libertarians can appreciate Mars in a way that Barry Diller and his fellow moguls can't. A desolate planet free of earthly institutions is more appealing to libertarians than it is to the corporate elite, just as the New World was more appealing to the Pilgrims and other contrarians than it was to the European aristocracy. It will take some doing to settle Mars, but libertarians have a crucial advantage. They're not expecting government bureaucrats to do the job. They know better than to count on NASA.
Four decades after the Lewis and Clark expedition, the American West had been mapped by trappers and was being rapidly settled by farmers. It has now been nearly four decades since the first explorers went into space, and what do we have to show for it? Chiefly two government programs that have created lots of jobs and produced massive cost overruns: the space shuttle and the space station. Rick Tumlinson, the president of the Space Frontier Foundation, is grateful that NASA did not exist in Thomas Jefferson's day.
"Suppose," Tumlinson says, "that when Lewis and Clark returned from their trip, Jefferson had told them, `Mr. Clark, you develop a Conestoga shuttle. Mr. Lewis, I want you to build a national cabin.' And 30 years later they had three or four Conestoga shuttles, and they were just beginning to build the national cabin. That's where we are today."
Admittedly, space poses more logistical challenges than the American West. But NASA has shown a genius for complicating those challenges. It is burdened not only by bureaucratic inefficiency and pork barrel politics (every superfluous job means votes in someone's congressional district) but also by the public's aversion to risk. Private explorers can afford to fail and risk lives; NASA's leaders are expected by politicians and the press to prevent any loss of life or damage to "national prestige." They're forced to avoid another Challenger disaster at all costs.
"The cost of space travel ought to be declining with new technology, but it's not," says Edward L. Hudgins, director of regulatory studies at the Cato Institute. "About three decades after the Wright brothers' flight, the commercially viable DC-3 was flying. But today the cost of placing payloads into orbit on the shuttle is 10 times higher than it was during the Apollo program. By contrast, in the past 20 years the cost of airline tickets per passenger mile has dropped by 30 percent, and the cost of shipping oil has dropped 80 percent."
NASA's profligacy became absurdly obvious in 1989, when the agency was asked by President Bush to plan a mission to Mars. It responded with a $400 billion proposal to build a 1,000-ton interplanetary spaceship the length of a football field, which would have carried all the fuel for the return voyage. It would have been assembled in orbit because it was too large to be launched from Earth--"the battlestar Galactica," as Zubrin dubbed it. At the time he was an engineer at Martin Marietta Astronautics and a member of an informal group called the Mars Underground that met occasionally to dream of interplanetary travel. He and a colleague at Martin Marietta, Donald Baker, came up with an alternative to NASA's battlestar Galactica by adopting the philosophy of Roald Amundsen, the entrepreneurial Norwegian who explored the polar regions early this century.
Besides winning the race to the South Pole, Amundsen was the first person to sail the Northwest Passage, which he accomplished by avoiding the mistakes of the British Navy. As the NASA of its day, the Royal Navy in the 19th century sent one lavishly provisioned expedition after another in search of the Northwest Passage, but the large ships kept getting stuck in the Arctic ice, and when the food ran out the men had to return home (or perish, as many of them did). Amundsen, who was financing his own expedition, bought a small fishing boat and took a crew of just six. Unable to bring huge stores of food, he learned to live off the land by hunting caribou as he maneuvered the small boat through the ice all the way from the Atlantic to the Pacific.
"Amundsen's expedition was a brilliant example of a small group of explorers succeeding on a shoestring budget," Zubrin says. "Lewis and Clark's was another. Before their journey, armies with big baggage trains had failed to make any significant penetration in the American West. But Lewis and Clark managed to cross the continent with just 25 men."