- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 25, 2004

Whither the space program? Recent statements by President Bush suggested that he has committed the United States to manned flight to Mars as well as to a return to the moon. Arguably what he really did was pave the way for the abandonment of manned missions to space. This is a good idea.

To begin with, are we really going to Mars? Doing so would require a huge program with huge funding. Right now we barely have a way to get people even into orbit around Earth: The Space Shuttle is geriatric technology and no real replacement is in sight.

Until Congress actually votes for the funding, Mars is just talk.

A manned return to the moon? We could certainly do it. After all, we did it in 1969. But will we? Show me the money.

And why go? People in arrested development at the science-fiction-reading age of 15 talk about establishing a base on the moon. Sure, we could do it by devoting the national economy to little else. What’s there? Rocks. The expense of maintaining such a base and developing reliable transportation for resupply flights would probably dwarf a one-shot mission to Mars, but we could do it. We just aren’t going to.

Why would we want to do it? The action today is in unmanned exploration. In the first place, it works. A substantial proportion of unmanned probes disappear without a trace or don’t function as planned, but the rest do work. Every year they work better as technology improves.

In the second place, they capture the public imagination. The photos coming back from Spirit and Opportunity are available now, not in 2030.

Third, they are comparatively cheap. Unmanned is the way to go.

Mr. Bush says the “Crew Exploration Vehicle,” the follow-on to the Shuttle, will be operational no later than 2014. The F-22 fighter — a mere airplane — has been in development since about 1980.

Mr. Bush plans to terminate the Shuttle. Good. But if the Shuttle goes away, what happens to the International Space Station? Without the Shuttle, the Russians will be the only ones able to service the ISS. They are technically able to do it, though one may worry about their economy or even political stability. But how interested does that make the United States?

As nearly as I can tell, the International Space Station continues to plod along only because the funding is securely buried in bureaucratic shadows. The International Space Station doesn’t seem to be for anything. It is just a space station.

Enthusiasts say, for example, “Well, we can learn to manufacture things in space that can’t be manufactured on Earth.” Sure. Calculate the cost of putting a pound of anything into orbit. It was about $20,000 a pound during the Reagan years.

I’ll bet you a dollar to a doughnut that the International Space Station will be quietly abandoned. I’ll bet you a doughnut factory to a dollar that Congress doesn’t appropriate huge sums for a run at Mars. I’ll bet you the whole Dunkin’ Donuts empire that we don’t seriously begin work on putting a base on the moon.

Finally, I predict that the quality of planetary exploration will improve rapidly. Those prongy little golf carts buzzing and clicking on Mars are truly slick, and so are the European efforts. Electronics improve. NASA gets better at building probes. Computers get smaller and more powerful. That is where we’re going.

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