Mars: the Red-Tape Planet?

Bureaucrats...in...space!

Lacking the vision thing? Not this George Bush. The president is set to announce today a bold new initiative, an exploration to a new frontier way cooler than John F. Kennedy's. Bush intends to have the U.S. government build a permanent moonbase, which would then function as a launching pad for further expeditions to Mars.

I do believe that humanity's destiny is to explore and colonize outer space. I was thrilled as a teenager lying on the floor in front of my grandparents' television, watching Neil Armstrong take that first giant leap for mankind. Nothing, much less the sky, seemed to be a limit for human aspirations that July evening in 1969. I fully expected that before the year 2000 I would be vacationing on the moon. Reality eventually hit—it's way too expensive and government bureaucracies are the wrong way to go.

The 1960s race to the moon was essentially organized as a military campaign to beat the Soviets. A centralized government bureaucracy such as an army can single-mindedly achieve (at enormous, wasteful cost) focused goals. Going to the moon cost $100 billion in 1960s dollars. After the Apollo triumph, NASA lost whatever "vision thing" it once possessed, and like all bureaucracies it elevated self-preservation above all. Part of its survival strategy, as space aficionado Greg Klerkx demonstrates in his new book Lost in Space, has been to assiduously strangle any private space exploration initiatives for the past three decades.

Space doesn't have to remain the province of NASA, though. The colonization of the Americas offers different models of how to explore and colonize out there. The first is the Christopher Columbus model: Columbus' fleet of three ships in 1492 was financed by the Spanish government. Ultimately that model corrupted and bankrupted Spain and most of Latin America.

The second model is the Virginia Company one, the joint stock corporation that in 1607 financed another fleet of three ships to America. The explicit goal of the Virginia Company was to establish a self-sufficient profit-making colony. As history shows, that Jamestown colony turned out a bit better than Columbus' efforts. (OK, Jamestown was eventually taken over by the British government, but such power-grabs are a risk any company runs, even today.)

There is a third model, e.g., the Massachusetts Bay Colony, which was set up without government financing by religious fanatics. Mars colonized by Baptists fleeing America to escape gay marriage perhaps? Enough said.

The Columbus and Virginia expeditions were both launched with chiefly commercial motivations. Columbus was trying to find a shorter trade route to the Indies in order to break the Venetian/Saracen monopoly on trade over the Silk Route. And the Virginia Company wanted to sell land to colonists, find gold, and chart a water route to Asia.

Outer space does already have one commercially viable industry: communications satellites, with revenues totaling $86.8 billion in 2002. Putting aside the old joke that going to the moon is an expensive way to develop orange-flavored powdered drinks, NASA defenders often say that while it is not itself profitable, it spins off many commercially useful inventions.

But why not just aim research at specific goals like curing cancer or creating nanoforges for molecular manufacturing without detouring through space? For example, the billions (depending on whose accounting you believe, perhaps as much as $100 billion) wasted on building the International Space Station, just so NASA's creaky space shuttles would have a place to go, could surely have been spent more wisely on such things as searching for a cure for aging, more biotechnology research to benefit developing nations' farmers, providing clean drinking water for every person on the planet or—here's a thought—just leaving those billions in the pockets of the people to whom they originally belonged.

"The cost of a manned enclave on the Moon, I think, is going to make the space station look cheap," said Stanford University physics Nobelist Douglas Osheroff to the Associated Press. When President George H.W. Bush proposed a mission to Mars in 1989 on the 20th anniversary of the moon landing, NASA estimated the price tag at $400 billion.

Naturally, Reason has long advocated the private exploration of space. The Mars Direct project outlined by engineer and Mars Society President Robert Zubrin is an attractive vision of how a mission to Mars could be accomplished at a drastically reduced cost—perhaps as low as $5 billion. NASA might promise to do it at a similar cost, but keep in mind that the agency also promised Reagan a space station for only $8 billion.

Space exploration will inevitably get cheaper as technology advances. For example, reusable nanotech spaceplanes could be 90 percent lighter than current craft, yet simultaneously much safer and more durable. Zubrin suggests creating a Mars Prize of $20 billion to entice entrepreneurs into attempting private expeditions to Mars. In 20 years much more wealth (assuming the feds don't tax and spend it all away) will be available for establishing such a prize as the U.S. economy doubles or triples in size to $30 trillion. In 70 years, the economy will likely grow to $150 trillion. That much wealth can buy a lot of interesting and useful toys. Maybe someday I will be able to invest in the Mars Company with an eye to receiving a share of the Mars Prize.

No one wants to squelch humanity's lust for adventure. I am a huge fan of science fiction, and I especially enjoy the much-maligned space opera subgenre. Have spaceship and trusty alien companion, will travel, I say. But surely going to Mars as glorified government bureaucrats leaves something to be desired.

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