- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 20, 2004

Some politicians promise you the moon. President Bush is promising us Mars, too. The prospect is exciting, but his timing is curious.

The president expounded eloquently last week about why it is part of America’s destiny to send humans back to the moon, and future generations to Mars.

His seemingly sudden brainstorm left many observers wondering if Mr. Bush had been eating green cheese. What does he expect to find up there, TV comedians pondered: Osama bin Laden? Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction? The late, lamented budget surplus?

The public was divided about evenly on Mr. Bush’s space plans. An Associated Press poll released last week found 57 percent of respondents thought the moon and Mars should be explored by robots, while only 38 percent preferred humans. Indeed, if pure, basic scientific research is what we’re after, robots sound better than humans. They’re lighter, cheaper, more efficient and they do almost everything humans do except organize themselves into labor unions. Sounds like a modern manager’s dream.

But, closer examination reveals Mr. Bush’s moon and Mars aspirations could yield a decidedly early political bonanza for the Bush administration and a financial bonanza for some of the administration’s corporate friends, like Halliburton Co.

Yes, that’s the same Halliburton where Vice President Richard Cheney was chief executive officer before he joined Mr. Bush’s ticket and from which he still receives deferred compensation for five years. That’s the same Halliburton that went on to reap multibillion-dollar no-bid military contracts in Iraq and whose subsidiary KBR is under a Pentagon investigation for a possible $61 million in overcharges on its imports of Kuwaiti oil to Iraq.

Like a lot of big firms, Halliburton has had its eyes on the moon and Mars for quite a while. Halliburton scientist Steve Streich helped author an article in the Oil & Gas Journal two years ago titled “Drilling Technology for Mars Research Useful for Oil, Gas Industries.”

The article, unearthed last week by Progress Report, a daily publication of the liberal Center for American Progress, described Mars exploration as an “unprecedented opportunity” for the drilling industry and the “great potential for a happy synergy” between space researchers and “the oil and gas industry.”

Another revealing piece in the February 2001 issue of Petroleum News, unearthed last week by Joe Conason at Salon.com Web magazine, reported NASA and the Los Alamos National Laboratory were working with Hallburton, Shell and Baker-Hughes to identify drilling technologies that might work on Mars to look for water and other signs of life — and possible mineral wealth.

The earliest Mars drilling could be in 2007 and deeper drilling in 2014, with live astronauts along to assist, the article said. Mr. Bush’s expectations were more cautious. He called for a lunar base by about 2020 and a manned landing on Mars sometime after 2030. Hey, it’ll be here before you know it.

No, I’m not proposing Mr. Bush only wants to go into space to enrich his pals at Halliburton. But, in the world of politics, which is 90 percent perceptions, the appearance of a conflict of interest is no less troubling than the real thing.

One cannot help but wonder whether this administration’s sentimental attachment to oil rigs (Condoleezza Rice, for example, is our first national security adviser to have an oil tanker named after her, when she was a board director at Chevron) figured into Mr. Cheney’s reported promotion of the space exploration idea, ostensibly for its possible “military benefits.” Missiles on the moon and Mars? Hey, it could happen.

Every time I see one of this highly secretive administration’s big ideas lead back to the coffers of its old corporate cronies, I hear echoes of an Illinois state legislator I used to cover. He would say, “I can smell the meat a’cooking” whenever someone introduced a “fetcher,” a bill that could attract large campaign donations and other forms of bribery, legal and otherwise, from interested parties.

NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe seems to be well aware of the problem. In a briefing after Mr. Bush’s speech, he promised space officials will keep an eagle’s eye on how much Mr. Bush’s exploration program is “industry-driven.” That’s comforting, but I’d like to see Congress, which has yet to fund Mr. Bush’s space dreams, play an active role in that scrutiny, too.

That’s where you come in, fellow citizen. With both houses dominated by the president’s party, voters are particularly obliged to keep an eye on their senators and congressmen. Mr. Bush’s proposals deserve a real debate, not just a picnic of pork.

Clarence Page is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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