Years ago when I was traveling in Spain, I went on a road trip to a small Costa Blanca beach town with a carful of dyspeptic British ex-pats. One night we were driving on a quiet road in the hills above the town when, apropos of nothing in particular, one of my backseat companions pointed out her window at the full moon overhead and said, “I know it’s a horrible cliché and all, but does anyone else ever look at the moon and think, my god, people have stood on that?”
And for a moment the car went silent as we all stopped complaining about our hotel or bitching about the meal we’d just had or whatever it was we’d been doing, and thought to ourselves “wow, she’s right, that’s really something.
You couldn’t do this with Mars. It’s too hard to see. Had someone tried there would have just been some squinting, a bit of confused pointing perhaps, and maybe some arguing about which direction was south. Then we all would have shrugged and gone back to fiddling with the car radio.
Nonetheless, with the 40th anniversary of the moon landing now upon us, it’s only natural to wonder when we might get around to paying the Red Planet a visit. The last time the notion of a mission to Mars made widespread headlines was in 2004 when President Bush, perhaps sensing that his gambit to remake the Middle East wasn’t shaking out so well, announced “a new plan to explore space and extend a human presence across our solar system.” This plan became “Constellation” — NASA’s current human spaceflight program, which calls for the development of new spacecraft and booster vehicles to replace the space shuttle (set to be decommissioned in 2010) and for manned trips to the moon and, eventually, Mars.
“Eventually,” however, can be a tricky deadline to pin down. For instance, in 1989 (on the 20th anniversary of the moon landing), Bush pere made his own Mars headlines, announcing a goal of landing astronauts on the planet by 2019. Shortly thereafter, though, NASA came to him with an estimated $400 billion price tag for the project, and, well, suddenly everyone was a little less excited about the idea than they’d been before.
The current timeline puts a Mars landing at about 25 years out, an estimate that probably sits on the reliability spectrum somewhere between Amy Winehouse and a weekend F train. Interestingly (at least for a naif like myself for whom the idea of a trip to Mars still seems more Buck Rogers than potential reality), the issue isn’t technology, or even money really. It’s essentially just a matter of priorities and politics.
“We have everything we need to launch a mission to Mars in the next 10 to 15 years,” says Chris Carberry, executive director of the Mars Society, a non-profit organization that advocates exploration of the planet. “We’re more prepared now to go to Mars than we were to go to the moon when Kennedy announced it in the ’60s.”
Unlike the ’60s, though, which NASA spent monomaniacally focused on getting to the moon, past decades have seen the agency juggling any number of initiatives — the Hubble telescope, the shuttle program, toilet rights negotiations on the International Space Station (seriously!) — many of which were, at most, only tangentially related to going to Mars. The 2009 federal budget appropriated $17.8 billion to NASA, of which about $3 billion was directed to the Constellation program. The rest of the funding went to things like shuttle missions, space station maintenance and basic scientific research.
As things stand, spending on Constellation is scheduled to expand dramatically in 2011 after the space shuttle is decommissioned, freeing up several billion dollars a year in funds. Spending will go up again in 2016 after the space station is taken out of orbit, freeing still more money for the program. By 2025, NASA’s Exploration Systems mission directorate is projected to account for 50 percent of the agency’s budget, with 90 percent of that 50 percent being directed to Constellation.
All of which is the tedious way of saying that at the moment we aren’t spending nearly enough to fund the project, but we will be — sometime — maybe. Or, you know, maybe not. You’d never want to stake your life on a 15-year federal budget projection. Things can happen. For instance — while the shuttle program is almost certainly headed for extinction (although shuttle-state senator Bill Nelson, D-FL, has been pushing to have the decommission deadline relaxed somewhat), the space station is less of a sure thing. Its demise is officially slated for the middle of the next decade, but, notes the Washington Post, NASA is also analyzing the costs involved in keeping it operational through the late 2020s. After all, you don’t disappear a multi-decade, $100 billion investment overnight (unless, of course, you work on Wall Street. Thanks again guys!). And to be honest, it does seem weirdly counterproductive (to the under-informed layman, at any rate) to be bringing the thing down just as we’re about to finally finish building it.
NASA, though, is no stranger to abandoned initiatives and shifts in direction (here’s looking at you, Skylab B). Neither, for that matter, are Congress or the executive branch. Present budget projections look reasonably favorable regarding Constellation, but there’s no guarantee they’ll stay that way.
“Every year these programs have to go through the budget process,” Carberry says. “Every year you have a place where things can go wrong. You never know how long it’s going to last. The longer a program goes on, the more likely it is to get cut.”
Speaking of which, have you ever heard of the Augustine Report? In 1990, fresh off the first Bush’s unveiling of his plans for the moon and Mars, Vice President Dan Quayle arranged for an independent review of the country’s space program to be headed by aerospace executive and former Under Secretary of the Army Norman Augustine. Given his boss’s recent announcements, Quayle was likely hoping Augustine’s report would reinforce the importance of manned space flights. Instead, Augustine came back with a review that recommended science, not exploration, be NASA’s top priority. As for the president’s plans for a mission to Mars, Augustine suggested it “be configured to an open-ended schedule, tailored to match the availability of funds.” Or, in other words, “Sounds great! Just make sure you don’t actually spend any money on it...”
I bring this up because the Obama administration recently called for its own independent review of the space program. And who did they tap to chair this review? Why, none other than Norman Augustine.
Is this 1990 all over again? Is Norm about to once again stomp out a nation’s Martian dreams? Who can say? (For those interested, the report is due out this August. You can go here to add your own input to the process.) But regardless of the commission’s findings, the fact that Augustine was tapped to head it suggests certain things about the administration’s general disposition towards NASA’s exploratory wing. Given past history, he’s not exactly the first guy you’d pick if you were looking for an enthusiastic two thumbs up.
Nor is he alone in this. Manned space flight has no shortage of critics. As awesome as a mission to Mars might sound (and you have to admit it sounds pretty ridiculously awesome), there’s an argument to be made (and certainly people are making it) that sending humans into space is simply too dangerous and costly an enterprise to justify the benefits, particularly given the work done of late with unmanned rovers and probes.
It’s a question of motivations. We didn’t start the Apollo program half a century ago in the name of science. We started it in the name of beating the Russians. It was, as Tom Wolfe wrote in The Right Stuff, a form of single combat. Cold War fears focused our minds and money for the better part of a decade, and at the end of it we landed a man on the moon. Today, though, we have different concerns, none of which seem to be particularly pushing us in the direction of a trip to Mars. We have plans to make it happen, and maybe it will. Then again, maybe it won’t. Twenty-five years is an awfully long time to hold a public’s (and a bureaucracy’s) attention — especially when you don’t have all that strong a grasp on it anymore.
It’s a curious situation. For millennia people have watched the sky and dreamed of visiting other planets. Now we’ve reached the point where we very likely could if we cared to. We just aren’t quite sure it’s worth the bother.