TCS Daily

Cowboys on Mars?

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - January 13, 2004 12:00 AM

This week, President Bush is expected to lay out a plan to send humans back to the Moon, and to Mars. Those are goals I favor, as I've written before - see this column, or this column, or, for that matter, this column for some discussion of why I feel that way.

Nonetheless, the proposal is already drawing some fire. Some critics are complaining about the cost, noting (as this Washington Post article does) that:

Bush's father, President George H.W. Bush, proposed a sustained commitment to human exploration of the solar system -- with a return to the moon as a stepping stone to Mars -- in 1989, on the 20th anniversary of the first human landing on the moon. NASA came up with a budget-busting cost estimate of $400 billion, which sank the project.

What the Post article fails to mention is that the "budget-busting cost estimate" was, in fact, meant to sink the project. NASA officials were afraid that Bush's plans might interfere with funding for the Space Station, and quite deliberately came up with the largest figure they could plausibly manage in order to ensure that the Mars mission plan died on the vine. They were successful, and we've reaped over a decade of, well, nothing in response. We'd have been better off scrapping the Space Station and proceeding with the Mars mission, since at least then we might have, you know, actually gone somewhere... I'd be surprised to see NASA pull that trick again, but I could be wrong.

At any rate, there are better approaches. One that you hear a lot about, and that NASA has, in the interim, even shown some interest in, is Bob Zubrin's Mars Direct mission architecture, which uses mostly proven technology, and which promises to be much, much cheaper. Zubrin thinks that we could do a Mars mission using this architecture for $30-40 billion -- which, even if you double it, is still manageable. Back when I worked for Al Gore's Presidential campaign in 1988, I did a paper on Mars Missions that concluded that $80-90 billion (in 1988 dollars, about the cost of the Apollo program) was the maximum feasible expenditure on a Mars mission. This would fall well below that figure. True, we have the war on terrorism to fight now, but in 1988 (and for that matter, during Apollo) we had the Cold War.

A more cogent criticism than cost is what we have to show for it when we're done. I'm a fan of Zubrin's approach, but I agree with other critics that the real key to successful space settlement over the long term is to take the work away from governments and turn it over to profit-making businesses. The government has an important early role to play in exploring new territories before they're settled -- it wasn't private enterprise that financed Lewis and Clark, after all -- but government programs aren't much good once the trail-breaking phase has passed. And the earlier commercial participation comes in, the better.

Quite a few people are already sounding this theme:

"It is my hope that this new vision does have an ample opportunity for the commercial sector," said Courtney Stadd, NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe's former chief of staff who left the space agency for private industry in late 2003. "If it is limited to just a few astronauts exploring the moon and Mars, as we learned after Apollo 17, it will not grab and sustain public attention."

I think that's right. As Rand Simberg observes: "If they were going to return to the sixties, it would have been much better if they'd picked up instead where the X-15 left off."

Bush's plan hasn't been announced yet, and the scuttlebutt may not be especially reliable, especially given his Administration's proven ability to keep truly ambitious initiatives under wraps. So let's hope that this involves something a bit more ambitious -- not just in terms of destinations, but in terms of visions -- than a rerun of Apollo. What might that involve, in terms of elements that would make a return to Mars more than just a flags-and-footprints exercise?

If you want settlement, and development, you need to give people an incentive. One possibility, discussed by space enthusiasts for some time, is a property-rights regime modeled on the American West, with land grants for those who actually establish a presence on the Moon or Mars. Some have, of course, derided the idea of a "Wild West" approach to space development, but other people like the idea of a "Moon Rush," which I suppose could be expanded in time to a "Mars Rush."

Could our "cowboy" President get behind a Wild West approach to space settlement? He'd be accused of unilateralism, disrespect for other nations, and, of course, of taking a "cowboy approach" to outer space that's sure to infuriate other nations who want to be players but who can't compete along those lines -- like, say, the French. Hmm. When you look at it that way, there doesn't seem to be much doubt about what he'll do. Does there?


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