On to Mars?


Space beckons to every child who first looks through a telescope at another world or gazes at the night sky with the knowledge that every star is a sun. As we grow older, some of us lose that sense of awe and excitement, finding it incompatible with practical concerns. Others develop a lifelong passion for space exploration in all its forms.

Space enthusiasts who believe in limited government have long been caught in the middle, unwilling to relinquish the dream yet uneasy about depending on the state to fulfill it. Recent events illustrate that tension.

In a speech marking the 20th anniversary of the Apollo landing, President Bush called for a permanent base on the moon, an expedition to Mars, and the eventual settlement of the solar system. Science-fiction fans get an undeniable thrill from hearing anyone—even George Bush—talk about such prospects as if they were practical goals. And when daring space projects are carried out, as in 1969, even people who don't know Fred Pohl from Poul Anderson have an urge to stand up and cheer.

The appeal of such achievements goes beyond mere jingoism. The we of space travel—as in, "Will we go to Mars?"—is the entire human race. It is tempting, therefore, to argue that the sheer inspiration of the space program constitutes a public good that is worth spending enormous sums to provide—$100 billion in current dollars for Apollo, some $400 billion for a Mars mission. But this is really just a form of the argument that government should subsidize all the good things that some of us fear people would not pay for voluntarily.

While it is currently unrealistic to suppose that a moon base or a Mars expedition could be funded noncoercively, not all space projects are so expensive. Voyager's spectacular rendezvous with Neptune this summer was a reminder that unmanned probes can explore the solar system far more cost-effectively than people can. Scientifically, Voyager is considered the most productive space mission ever, yet over a 17-year period it has cost a relatively modest $865 million.

Using more-sophisticated technology and freed from the constraints of government control, a private, international consortium of universities and scientific institutions could no doubt reduce the cost of such projects. Space enthusiasts would then have the opportunity to put their money where their mouths are. About 9.3 million people visit the National Air and Space Museum each year. If each gave a few bucks, they could help pay for further exploration of the solar system.

At least one aspect of space activity, the launch business, no longer needs to depend on contributions, whether from the government or from individuals. This year and next, McDonnell Douglas, Martin Marietta, and General Dynamics will launch 15 satellites. Smaller firms—including California's American Rocket Company, which has developed the first launcher designed for commercial purposes—are also beginning to compete with government operations.

Those disappointed by the utilitarian nature of such profit-making ventures should recall the space shuttle boondoggle. Launch companies are sticking with rockets because they work—they deliver payloads at an affordable cost. That does not mean the private sector is abandoning progress. Research into more-exotic technologies will continue, and returnable spacecraft will be used when—and only when—they make economic sense.

By monopolizing space, NASA has not only preempted private action, it has distorted our expectations so that the development of viable alternatives seems anticlimactic. With projects such as Apollo, the space shuttle, and the proposed space station, the government has consistently jumped ahead of what could be justified on rational grounds.

When you're spending other people's money, it's easy to accept "because it's there" as an adequate rationale; the free market does not allow for such a luxury. But after all, a space project is only worthwhile if it produces economic or scientific benefits that outweigh its costs. That means the future is bright for the launch business and for unmanned probes. Mars will have to wait.