George W. Bush: The President of Mars

[JR: Bill Becker beat me to the punch with this great post. I assert the United States will never do a manned mission to Mars this century because by the time such a mission is possible, around 2030, the nation and the world will be desperately engaged in a life-and-death struggle that uses all its brainpower and resources to try to 1) stop catastrophic global warming and 2) minimize the misery for billions of people. I’d take a bet on that if I had any chance of living long enough to collect….]

One of the great ironies of our time is this: We have learned to walk on the Moon, but we haven’t yet learned to walk on the Earth. It is an irony that is fast devolving into a tragedy.

Since the first man landed on the Moon in 1969, we have continued dumping greenhouse gases into the Earth’s atmosphere and making our planet less habitable.

Meantime, under the direction of the Bush Administration, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration is working toward the goal of settling the Moon and Mars.

If we could do both — put human beings on other planets while practicing good stewardship of Earth — all would be well. But the next missions to the Moon and Mars are being prepared at the expense of life at home.

In a report Sunday, 60 Minutes gushed over the Administration’s Mission to Mars. Without question, NASA is proving it still has the right stuff. Four years ago, the space agency successfully deployed two “rovers” on Mars and they’ve been sending back photos and data ever since.

One scientist compared it to shooting a basketball from New York to Los Angeles, and sinking the shot without touching the rim. Now, the plan is to put American astronauts back on the Moon in preparation for a manned voyage to Mars. As 60 Minutes’ correspondent Bob Simon put it:

From the mountains of Utah to the factory floors of Cleveland, from the space center in Houston to the marshes of Virginia, spacesuits are being tested, rockets are being fired, and capsules are being designed. The United States is once again aiming to launch astronauts to the moon and yes, even, to Mars.

What Simon didn’t mention was the unconscionable trade-off the Administration is making between our planet and the exploration of others. In February 2006, you may recall, the Bush Administration edited NASA’s mission statement to delete the phrase “understand and protect our home planet” [which James Hansen wrote about here].

In January 2007, the National Research Council (NRC) concluded that NASA’s earth sciences budget had declined 30% since 2000, eroding the agency’s satellite capabilities for Earth study.

The network of satellites upon which the United States and the world have relied for indispensable observations of Earth from space is in jeopardy,” the National Association for the Advancement of Science warned.

One satellite designed to help scientists understand the impacts of climate change, the $100 million Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR), has been stored for years in a box at the Goddard Space Flight Center. DSCOVR was grounded by Republicans in Congress because it was originally conceived by then-Vice President Al Gore. NASA cancelled the DSCOVR program in 2006 even though the NRC judged it a “strong and scientifically vital and feasible mission that will contribute unique data on Earth’s climate systems.

In its report on the Mission to Mars, 60 Minutes interviewed Gene Cernan, the last man to walk on the Moon. “What’s impossible?” he asked wistfully, recalling the days of the Apollo missions. “What can’t we do if we wanna do it badly enough?”

When it comes to understanding the ecological systems that support life on Earth, the Bush Administration doesn’t “wanna do it badly enough”. Perhaps Bush is doing a favor for the aerospace industry. Perhaps he hopes to leave a Kennedy-like legacy. But history is likely certain to judge Bush’s priorities much differently.

Restoring our exploration of the Earth and its climate should be one of the first things on the agenda of the next President.

16 Responses to George W. Bush: The President of Mars

  1. Jim Spellman says:

    A recent editorial by Jeremy Sherer, an attorney with Whatley Drake & Kallas in Birmingham, Ala. posits the following:

    “. . .In 1962 President John Kennedy challenged our imaginations and our determination to push the bounds of our universe beyond our own stratosphere. “We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people. For space science, like nuclear science and all technology, has no conscience of its own. Whether it will become a force for good or ill depends on man, and only if the United States occupies a position of pre-eminence can we help decide whether this new ocean will be a sea of peace or a new terrifying theater of war. . .”

    “. . .People do not go hungry because of space exploration, people do not lose their homes because JPL’s Mars rovers continue their mission, and certainly schools do not fail to meet No Child Left Behind standards because we invest in science and technology.

    Generations of Americans dreamily watched as Neil Armstrong bounded across the face of the moon, and generations of Americans have cried as our brave astronauts perished in service of their nation – all the while political scandal, economic crises and violence plagued our nation just as it does today. Despite all of this we have never wavered in our quest to understand the world and universe in which we live.

    According to screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, man explores space and pushes past our moon and toward Mars because it is “what’s next.” “(Because) we came out of the cave. And we looked over the hill, and we saw fire. And we crossed the ocean, and we pioneered the West, and we took to the sky. The history of man is hung on a timeline of exploration, and this is what’s next.”

    The history of America was not written by the souls of the timid, and neither shall we realize our dreams through a spirit of timidity. The space program is an embodiment of all that is good about America. It exemplifies the unifying hope of possibilities upon which stretched this nation from ocean to ocean to the heavens. Lest we forget the sacrifices made by those before us, our dedication to the exploration of space must and should remain complete.

  2. Chester says:

    The “60 Minutes” piece had, in objection to NASA’s Mars dreams, about a 15-second soundbite from Barney Frank — nothing more. The story was a valentine to the manned space program, one of the biggest boondoggles in American history. I can’t find on the CBS News web site, however, any vehicle for sharing my views with the staff of “60 Minutes.”

  3. Jim Spellman says:

    Compared to boondoggles otherwise known as “entitlement programs” — such as Medicare and Medicaid, which automatically provide benefits to anyone legally eligible for them, U.S. federal spending for space exploration is small.

    U.S. Taxpayers spent $628 bn on Medicare and Medicaid last year alone — that’s $610.70 billion more than NASA’s budget of $17.3 billion (source: MSNBC

    Aside from Rep. Barney Frank being one of “the usual suspects” (so much so, that he’s not worth listening to, and will eventually fade away from our collective memories), NASA’s funding for one year – if cancelled and used elsewhere – would only cover one of the following:

    Two months of U.S. peacekeeping forces in Iraq and Afghanistan;

    One month of Social Security;

    Three weeks of Medicare, Unemployment Insurance or the Budget Deficit, or;

    Two weeks of Medicaid or Interest on the National Debt.

    And how much does NASA cost you? Simple. About $57.10 a year for funding your future.

    That works out to $1.09 a week or $0.15 cents a day. Try and save the world on that.

  4. Chester says:

    Medicare a boondoggle?? I think most Americans — especially seniors — would reject that without a moment’s hesitation.

    I carefully qualified my objections to the “manned space program,” not NASA’s programs in general. Most space scientists will tell you that the manned space program is pretty much a waste, and the money would be much better spent in unmanned programs like, yes, JPL’s Mars rovers.

    The manned program satisfies the deluded fantasy that someday we’ll be able to colonize planets trillions of miles away.

    Instead of fueling Star Trek fantasies, we need to protect Earth. It’s the only home we’ve got.

  5. tidal says:

    Since we are randomly invoking the words of JFK, I thought I would post some excerpts from his “SPECIAL MESSAGE TO THE CONGRESS ON URGENT NATIONAL NEEDS” in May, 1961… not to relive the “man on the moon” objectives, but just to show what CAN be communicated and delivered by the right kind of leadership:

    “Mr. Speaker, Mr. Vice President, my co-partners in Government, gentlemen and ladies:

    … These are extraordinary times. And we face an extraordinary challenge. Our strength as well as our convictions have imposed upon this nation the role of leader in freedom’s cause. No role in history could be more difficult or more important…

    …we have examined where we are strong and where we are not, where we may succeed and where we may not. Now it is time to take longer strides–time for a great new American enterprise–time for this nation to take a clearly leading role in space achievement, which in many ways may hold the key to our future on earth.

    I believe we possess all the resources and talents necessary. But the facts of the matter are that we have never made the national decisions or marshaled the national resources required for such leadership. We have never specified long-range goals on an urgent time schedule, or managed our resources and our time so as to insure their fulfillment….

    I therefore ask the Congress… to meet the following national goals:

    First, I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth…”

    He goes on to detail which existing technologies would be targeted for accelerated development, the funding obligations, related projects and goals…

    Simple, direct… set clearly articulated costed goals, within a specific timeframe, etc…. simple… If only we could get the same substituting climate change for “man on the moon”… It is a new century after all…

  6. Paul K says:

    Exploration of Mars and all of space is the mission of NASA. How it became the world’s largest assemblage of climate scientists is a lesson in mission creep and bureaucratic expansion.

  7. Jim Spellman says:

    Humanity can not be bound to one planet, Chester. It needs to expand beyond the Earth as it has expanded beyond known frontiers into unknown territories ever since the human species first arrived on the planet. Someone will do it eventually — it doesn’t matter who from a human survival viewpoint — but I want the history books of the future to show that our country maintained its leadership role in continuing human expansion into the space frontier.

    Welfare programs are NOT the best way to pump up people’s income. At best, they just provide a floor to support the recipients at some minimum level. The best way to pump up an economy is with new technologies, products, companies and highly-skilled, high-paying jobs that result from the long-term pure R&D programs that only a government can afford to wait for.

    Your health, on the other hand, should be your own responsibility, although reforming the healthcare insurance industry is a good start (and I speak as one salaried with the medical industry, not NASA). However, you can exercise regularly, eat healthy, don’t drink, smoke or do illegal drugs, and you’re still going to die anyway.

    What causes little Johnny or Jane to go to bed hungry each night is the fact the U.S. throws away $100 billion worth of food each year, not because we have a few government-paid employees camped out in a high-tech Winnebago.

    Research into how to sustain human life in space, on other planets and in other places considered hostile to us is really research into how our species works and what is needed to support it. This increased understanding results in huge benefits in medicine and other aspects of living. The full extent of these benefits are completely unknown and unknowable in advance because it is not possible to predict what paths creatively thinking researchers will travel.

    When you come down to it, the bottom line isn’t the bottom line.

    It’s not about the cost. It’s not about fixing all our problems at home first before we go either. For over 4,000 years, those problems have always existed and will therefore never end; it’s an impossible condition to attain because as soon as you solve one problem you have ten more that will pop up in its place (You feed everyone in the world, you birth more babies. You then have a larger population to deal with).

    It’s about giving those at home some relief from their daily problems by giving them some hope that there’s something worthwhile ahead, something to look forward to, a reason for working through the immediate problems, to surmount them and to go beyond them.

    NASA’s budget is only a fraction of the total Federal Research and Development budget (6/10ths of 1%, to be exact); the rest is in other agencies. This is the funding that develops new technologies, or advances old ones to create new products that build new businesses which develop new jobs that can improve people’s circumstances.

    Yet only 5.6% of the whole Federal Budget is devoted to Research and Development that will result in new technologies, new products, new companies and new high-paying jobs.

    And the Vision for Space Exploration (going back to the moon, and on to Mars and beyond) is only a piece of that. . .

    So the question you should really ask your elected officials is this:

    “Since the future of the U.S. Economy depends so much on new technologies, new products, new companies and new jobs, why is the R&D portion of the Federal Budget, especially for the Vision for Space Exploration, so small?”

  8. Tea Drinker says:

    Expert: “We’re brainwashing our children” about global warming
    Another post from guest blogger Rick Neale of Florida Today, from the National Hurricane Conference in Orlando:

    William Gray, the well-known Colorado State University hurricane forecaster, routinely uses the annual National Hurricane Conference as a platform to bash global warming. In a statement to Florida Today, Gray argued that the scientific consensus on global warming is bogus — and “a mild form of McCarthyism has developed toward those scientists who do not agree” that mankind is in danger.

    “We are also brainwashing our children on the warming topic. We have no better example than Al Gore’s alarmists and inaccurate movie which is being shown in our schools and being hawked by warming activists with little or no meteorological-climate background,” Gray wrote.


    Joe – Go ahead and bash Gray …. without sounding like a ‘McCarthyist’ ….

  9. Jay Alt says:

    Gray has complained (and ranted) for several years now about conspiracies arrayed against him. (Someone should inform him that when professors retire, funding agencies phase out their research contracts.) He has managed to offend scientists on both sides of the issue with his statements. Former pupil and coauthor Chris Landsea, who supports Gray’s views on hurricane activity, and apparently was not speaking to him for that reason.

  10. John Mashey says:

    NASA Mission statement, from NASA Ames:

    * To advance and communicate scientific knowledge and understanding of the earth, the solar system, and the universe.
    * To advance human exploration, use, and development of space.
    * To research, develop, verify, and transfer advanced aeronautics and space technologies.

    I’ve helped design supercomputers, and helped sell a bunch of them to various parts of NASA that I loved working with. I’m a science-fiction reader for 50+ years and I’d love to see permanent outposts out there sometime … but I would perfectly happy to put *manned* spacecraft beyond near-Earth orbit on hold for a quite a while. We can do lots of good science that needs to get done without that.

    In particular, if we don’t put a lot of NASA-talent effort into dealing with Peak-Fossil+Climate Change over the next 50-100 years, we’re not going to end up with a sustainable technic civilization good enough to discover and fend off the next dinosaur-killer that comes by. [We will need deep-space capability, but it’s a whole lot more cost-effective to do it with robots, notwithstanding various Hollywood movies.] Given that the probability of such ~1, sooner or later, with totally unpredictable timing, it would be good to allow for the possibility.

    Joe’s comments are right on.

  11. Jim Prall says:

    My preference for unmanned over manned exploration predates the recent embarrassment of removing “Mission to Planet Earth” from NASA’s agenda. People may be great at improvising and observation, but we weigh a lot, require lots of extra mass for life support, and missions have to be designed to bring us home safely with low probability of failure. Weighed against the current generation of robotic observation platforms and instrumentation, we’re just not cost-effective.

    Why do you say humans “have to” colonize space? It’s one thing to say we have to take every new opportunity that comes to us, due to our inventive large brain. But we don’t have a “destiny” that somehow compels us to make huge sacrifices of what we still have here on earth in a long-shot attempt to bring this new “manifest destiny” forward from an uncertain span in the future up to *right now*.

    Space exploration aside for a moment, everyone here on earth needs a solution to two converging, very pressing issues: climate change, as well as our dependence on fossil feuls which will not last that much longer, and which may be at or near peak annual extraction already – we haven’t yet explained to ourselves how we can continue as technological, growth-oriented economies without increasing energy resource use.

    There is enough coal and unconventional oil (e.g. tar sands) still left to create a serious risk of runaway CO2-climate feedbacks such as permafrost thawing leading to large methane releases. But both conventional oil and natural gas may be facing crises before many more years. Lots of turmoil and conflict should be foreseen arising from this.

    If we need a new Apollo project, landing a man on Mars has to rank below a really serious, united effort by the whole country (and the whole world) to move promptly to renewable energy sources and far greater efficiency of energy consumption. This has to be done on a scale to replace the vast current volume of fossil fuels before we hit a new mega-energy-crisis AND before we pile too much GHG in the atmosphere to be able to avoid the worst foreseeable impacts (plus whatever unforseen ones could be far worse – what a gamble!)

    To get that much change from the status quo, in so many areas of the economy, is a much bigger challenge than the Apollo moon mission, and needs bold national leadership (in every country at the same time!)

    Rep. Jay Inslee (D-WA) has used this idea of a “New Apollo Project” in reference to proposed legislation to begin moving toward energy independence and sustainability.

    In a few decades, we’ll know if we’ve met these twin challenges or not. In that time frame, we may be able to return to the longer-term dream of sending humans beyond the moon. That target is just not the right place to be focusing at this critical crossroads for our own planet.

  12. Kiashu says:

    “But the next missions to the Moon and Mars are being prepared at the expense of life at home.”

    NASA budget FY2007/8 = $17.3 billion
    Losing the war in Iraq = $123 billion
    Money lost due to subprime mortgage and derivatives crisis so far = $200 billion
    US trade deficit in Jan 2008 = $58.2 billion – that’s just for January.

    So for the NASA budget you could lose the war in Iraq for seven weeks, match the subprime losses for five week, or balance the USA’s sending its money overseas for less than four days.

    NASA’s peanuts. Don’t sweat it.

  13. Kiashu says:

    You might also want to consider that LBJ’s Great Society was funded at the same time as NASA and the war in Vietnam. It’s amazing how much money you can find when you want to.

    It’s just that it costs a lot more to lose a war than it used to, for some reason.

  14. Ronald says:

    The reasons we went to the Moon in the 1960’s and 70’s was for different reasons than we would be going to the Moon and Mars now. And we shouldn’t go to the Moon and Mars to visit, but to pioneer and settle.

    The reason we went to the Moon in the 1960’s and 70’s was because we were in a cold war with the Soviet Union. John F. Kennedy said so, to paraphrase what he said, it was to win the hearts and minds of the people on earth and to not leave the Soviet Union the only country in space. Landing on the moon was to central theme to that goal.

    Now we would go back to the Moon and to Mars for different reasons. Our military enemies sure don’t care about any technical achievements; they might just want to see us being a different religion. This president wants us to go back so he can make wonderful speeches that make him look like some visionary. But if he can’t and won’t pay for the enlarged space program and doesn’t want to pay for what is mostly a voluntary war, it’s not visionary, it’s hubris. And we should not support such a position.

    Going back to the moon and to mars to visit doesn’t get us anything. We know we have the technical capability to do such a thing. We didn’t know we could do it in the 1960’s.

    We shouldn’t go back to the moon at all. Leave the airless worlds to machines.

    Mars is much different. The planet has a rotation about the same as the earth and most of the things we need to live there are more available. But humans we shouldn’t go to Mars and come back. We should go to Mars in only one way trips. Send people to mars who want to pioneer and settle the planet.

    My wild ass guess is that it costs 25 percent of the money for a Mars trip to go to Mars, 25 percent to stay on the planet and do something and 50 percent to come back. Coming back from Mars has been described as the most vulnerable of the trip as well. If we forgo spending the money to bring these people back, we can afford to spend more on better living when they are there.

    In Antarctica, the rate of resigning on to spend another winter there is higher than most people would think. Why? Because those people who went there made friends and if their friends resigned, they did to. Maybe only one out of 100 million people would agree to do it, but on a planet of 6 billion people, that is still a pool of 60 people to choose from. Send them a few years to Antarctica and Devon Island in Canada to train and pick the best ones from that group.

    We sometimes forget the hardships that humans did before human technology came around. The things that people did and still do to survive in harse environments is remarkable. That same spirit could be used to explore the new world of Mars.

    We could send new pioneers after the first bunch, every 2 years as the orbits of our planets allow. In 20 years time, we could have hundreds working on the planet with the first goals of exploration, science and developing a self-sufficient settlement.

    Otherwise don’t go at all. Machines can do the science. It’s not visionary to visit the Moon and Mars at the same time running up budget deficits and accumulate debt that we borrow from other countries. We should be better than that.

  15. JGilbert says:

    Anybody interested in this question should check out J. Richard Gott III’s 1993 article on the Copernican principle.

    Gott, J. Richard III. “Implications of the Copernican principle for our future prospects.” Nature. May 27, 1993, pp 315-319.

  16. Jay Alt says:

    Bill has nothing on climate scientists Lenny S. –

    Let’s go to Mars