The Fiscal Frontier

President Bush's expensive space plans might not work out. He might not care.

Wed Jan. 14, 2004 3:00 AM EST

On Wednesday, George W. Bush will announce plans to establish a permanent station on the moon as a step on the way to an eventual manned expedition to Mars. Even before being formally announced, the plan has run into the not-insignificant criticism that its cost will be out of this world. (The first President Bush proposed something similar in 1989, on the 20th anniversary of the Apollo moon landing. His plans, which came with a $400 billion price tag, were swept aside by Congress as being insanely expensive.) Given the likely opposition from Congress, some are wondering if the younger Bush is more interested in election-year grandeur than the advancement of science.

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Although as yet vague on detail, the new plans, officials say, will include gradual changes: a 5 percent jump ($750 million) in NASA's $15.5 billion annual budget, and a general overhaul of NASA -- the phasing out of old programs, like three remaining space shuttle orbiters and the international space station, could potentially free up billions to put into manned trips to the moon and Mars.

So far, the timeline foresees an unmanned mission to the moon later this decade, followed by a return of humans to the moon's surface in the middle of the next. The mission to Mars would follow.

On the face of it, Bush is asking for only small increases in NASA’s budget. But critics argue that because the project will be decades long and only come to fruition long after he is out of office, there’s no telling how much it will cost.

Experts say undertakings like this one need the least funding in early planning stages, and the most in later years, when factories are busy turning out the equipment needed for the journey.

With the government heavily committed to defense and homeland security, NASA will be one of the few agencies to receive a spending increase ahead of the rate of inflation.

Bush is no doubt betting that his plans will capture the public's imagination in a way that the International Space Station hasn't. But Americans are somewhat ambivalent about space spending. A recent AP poll shows that more than half of those asked would prefer money to be spent on domestic problems rather than space exploration. Asked whether they favored the United States expanding the space program the way Bush proposes, people were evenly split, with 48 percent favoring the idea and the same number opposing it.

One argument is that NASA can accomplish just as much, and probably more, through unmanned space exploration than manned. An editorial in the Washington Post points to the latest Mars venture as proof of the scientific value of unmanned journeys, but without nearly the expense of human missions.

Space.com says that the cost of what Bush proposes isn’t utter lunacy. They make the case for Bush’s call:

"Comparing the value of human spaceflight to the need for jobs or improved healthcare looks at the whole issue of how to spend federal money from an absurd perspective. It's like asking whether schools should offer sports programs or focus entirely on reading, writing and math. The question of whether to put humans on the Moon and Mars should be viewed strictly in terms of how best to spend a reasonable chunk of science and exploration dollars, not in comparison to other important government programs. All the while NASA's budget must remain reasonable -- not much more than the tiny fraction of overall federal spending that it is today. The 2004 federal budget is $2.2 trillion. NASA's is $15.5 billion. Reasonable estimates suggest the space agency's share of the pie would need to rise gradually to $20 billion within a few years if footprints are to be made in Martian dust within a generation. … NASA has the money."

Space.com used the estimate of $20 billion to reach Mars, but to some, that’s a conservative estimate of how much it will cost. Gregg Easterbrook, of The New Republic, works with the $400 billion estimate that NASA expected a trip to Mars to cost back in 1989. He argues that that's $600 billion in today's money. Add in the proposed moon base, and the plan could easily reach $1 trillion.

The fact is, no one really knows how much it will cost. And price might be a moot, according to some who feel a space station on the Moon will advance scientific knowledge very little. Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute, a Democratic research group, says, "The Bush White House is taking its obsession with being bold to new heights. There's no real rationale for a manned space program, much less colonization of the moon, so it's hard not to be cynical and conclude this is the space-age equivalent of bread and circuses."

Easterbrook lays out his objections to the value of a Moon space station:

"What would astronauts at a Moon base do? I haven't the foggiest notion. Note that NASA has not so much as sent a robot probe to the Moon in 30 years, because as far as space-exploration advocates can tell, there is nothing, absolutely nothing, of value to do on the Moon. Geologists are interested in the Moon's formation. If there is ever a fusion reactor to meet the world's energy needs, the "helium three" on the Moon might prove useful, but fusion reactors are decades away from practicality, assuming they ever work. Spending $200 billion on a Moon base that does nothing would be pure, undiluted government waste."

But some scientists argue otherwise. They cite several advantages to a lunar pad: gathering solar energy to be beamed to earth, mining lunar minerals, huge telescopes with a clearer moon from the earth, and the ability for geologists to study rocks blasted from Earth billions of years ago by asteroid impacts.

Skeptics say that for Bush is attempting to look bold and visionary for transparently political reasons. With the State of the Union address approaching and an election less than a year off, Bush wants something to crow about. The Economist writes that Bush may have his eyes on a different prize than space travel and the advancement of science:

"Mr Bush no doubt hopes that launching an exciting, visionary project that invokes America’s pioneer spirit will boost his campaign to be re-elected in November’s presidential poll. … Since Mr Bush’s grand vision may not be shared by the current Congress or future ones—or indeed future presidents—his grand announcement this week may not, in the end, amount to anything more than starry-eyed campaign rhetoric. Of course, only an incorrigible sceptic could possibly conclude that Mr Bush knows this perfectly well—and intends simply to let the whole thing fade away after it has helped him get re-elected."

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