by Kieran Healy on January 9, 2004

An interplanetary trial balloon is floated as the AP reports President Bush “will announce plans next week to send Americans to Mars and establish a permanent human presence on the moon”. “Bush won’t propose sending Americans to Mars anytime soon;” the report says, “rather, he envisions preparing for the mission more than a decade from now.” So it’s not clear whether there will be an explicit JFK-like commitment with a deadline (“The goal, before this decade is out…”) or just increased funding with Mars as the long-range but indefinite target. The report notes that “Bush has been expected to propose a bold new space mission in an effort to rally Americans around a unifying theme as he campaigns for re-election.” I can think of more important things that Americans might rally around besides a manned mission to Mars, and better reasons for space exploration than a feel-good election-year promise.

Will the project be funded by a series of aggressive tax cuts? Will it alienate voters who think the Earth is 4,000 years old? Will the Free State Project Libertarians ditch New Hampshire and realize that this is the chance they’ve been waiting for to really start again from scratch? Questions, questions.

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Keith M Ellis 01.09.04 at 3:12 am

I think both are worthy goals; but, Christ, this administration is being as transparently political as usual.


nolo 01.09.04 at 4:25 am

All’s I know is my head hurts now.


Maynard Handley 01.09.04 at 4:33 am

When China announced its plan to put a man on the moon back, six months or so ago, my take on it was that this had two goals.
(1) To provide a cover for various advanced military research and
(2) To make America feel less manly and thus stupid enough to squander bazillions of dollars on the next step, ie send a man to mars, rather than anything constructive (and thus problematic for China).

Now maybe I was wrong, but that was the way I saw it then, and it’s the way I see it now.
China may be poor and under-educated, but leaders appear to be wicked-smart, while the US gives the impression of being an oil-tanker piloted by chimpanzees. Sure in the deep ocean things probably won’t go wrong, but at some point the deep ocean is going to end.


Omri 01.09.04 at 4:59 am

The Chinese government spent decades nurturing nationalist resentment over all the many wrongs done to China in the colonial era. They came mighty close to creating a bigger monster than they could handle. Now they’re trying to channel all that bile into a space race with the US. Well, I’m thankful. It’s expensive, but it sure beats war.


northernLights 01.09.04 at 5:12 am

“All’s I know is my head hurts now.”

Yours too? Must be an epidemic of it.


Stewart Kelly 01.09.04 at 5:15 am

If Bush announces some ‘Back to the Future’ moon mission next week I’ll be the first to question it. Whats the point? How does it help with a Mars trip? If we build a base up there, what will it be for? If it’s purely to prove that we can, then why not spend the billions on something that really will capture the publics imagination: Send a person to Mars.

There’s no need to engage in a space race with the Chinese and Indians. The US won that one thirty odd years ago.


aphrael 01.09.04 at 7:56 am

The point is that having a base on the moon gives us effective control of space as a weapon or, at the very least, prevents us from being shut out. Think of it as the 21st-century version of Mahan; he who can most effectively use space for military purposes will dominate the world, militarily and politically.

This administration doesn’t buy into the taboo against militarization of space, and that means that the general international agreement against doing it is about to come crashing down.


Maynard Handley 01.09.04 at 8:56 am

A moon base as a weapon strikes me as ludicrous for the simple reason that it’s not sustaining. You don’t need to take it out by going there — just by taking out the rockets heading towards it.
Give me ONE good example of something military that a moon base can do that is not done just as well by launching satellites from Earth. We don’t use underwater cities to run the submarine fleet.


Steve @ 01.09.04 at 10:16 am

Forget about moon domination. Think the “my district game”! Think about the districts that benefit from a MoonDoggle and a MARSdoggle! Some of them are already Republican, but a bunch of them (including Florida) are not!

Bush is already well on the way towards winning re-election, with the Fair model predicting he’s got 58% of the popular vote. Now he’s after some Republican seats in the house and Senate.


Mr Spectator 01.09.04 at 10:43 am

Oh dear, oh dear. The Lunar Men would have celebrated this ambition in epic verse. How far we have come! Is it all in the right direction?


Brett Bellmore 01.09.04 at 10:52 am

“How does it help with a Mars trip?”

We don’t know how much gravity is required to maintain human health, we just know 1 G is enough, and zero isn’t. A moon station would give us another data point. That is important for planning a Mars mission. Of course, there are cheaper ways to accomplish the same end…

There are a few other things we could learn from a Moon mission and apply to Mars, but I doubt the agency which has so screwed up the space station would design a moon mission so as to learn them.


raj 01.09.04 at 11:22 am

I’m floored. I really am. After the contretemps regarding the funding of the “no child left behind” fiasco? Anyone who believes that this has anything to do with their flailing around to generate issues has to have his (or her) head examined.


Carlos 01.09.04 at 2:27 pm

To me, the most interesting part is that it’s an expensive, porky, long-term project that can be conveniently dropped whenever and very few people will care (as long as whatever pork infrastructure that has been built stays in place). Space is disposable these days.

Also, I think if the administration is expecting a surge of Kennedyesque patriotic response to this proposal, it’ll be mistaken. Compare reactions to Challenger versus Columbia.



a_retrogrouch 01.09.04 at 3:10 pm

Based on the screwups and 180-degree turns every other day in Iraq, the federal budget fiascos, and their scaring the rest of the world by crying wolf every time a foreign passenger jet takes off, this administration obviously can’t plan an escape from a wet paper bag. Who in their right mind is going to to think that they have the committment to plan and pay for a manned trip to Mars, of all places?

Send all the freakin’ wingnuts to Mars. They can have the place, lock, stock, and barrel.


Matthew 01.09.04 at 3:42 pm

It’s funny how contemplating the healthcare woes of the US (or most of their social problems) makes planming a mission to Mars seem much more easy.


fouro 01.09.04 at 4:26 pm

Yeah, but imagine the technology transfer possibilities:

New fuel cell developments for the energy industry to resist. New medical breakthroughs and medicines developed with taxpayer money then resold to us through the for profit healthcare system. New and amazing ways for Republicans to speak out of both sides of their faces about “profligate government spending.”

How about a mission to Appalachia first–it’s closer, our chances of payoff are better, and they have their own satellite dishes.


Mikhel 01.09.04 at 4:43 pm

I have questions about the economic aspect of this, too. If we weren’t in the hole billions of dollars, and if medicare and social security weren’t running an 18 trillion dollar deficit — sure, I’d say: go for it. But we are running deficits, and SS and medicare are going to be in trouble when they’re needed most, so why now? I say: go to mars, not to the moon. We’ve been to the moon.


Paul 01.09.04 at 5:22 pm

Wow. Deja Vu. This isn’t the first time a chimp has led us into space.


Patrick Rogers 01.09.04 at 6:55 pm

C’mon guys, this isn’t political, or some plan to dominate space. I’m sure the Carlyle Group has recently bought some company with new rocket technology, or something else which really only has use for a Mission to Mars.


Mary Kay 01.09.04 at 7:12 pm

Brett: It isn’t a moon mission that would help a Mars mission, it’s a moon base. If you build and dispatch the Mars bound ship at a moon base, you save enormously. Getting up out of the earth’s gravity well is both very difficult and very expensive. This is assuming a scenario in which we have an active and viable space program of course. Ahem. The in house rocket scientist says the whole thing is ridiculous as things currently stand.

As far as libertarians on the moon. Has someone been giving them copies of The Moon is a Harsh Mistress?



Matt Weiner 01.09.04 at 7:38 pm

Paraphrasing Richard Pryor:
“The Bush Administration wants to go to the moon. What’s wrong with that? Let them all go!”


BruceR 01.09.04 at 8:47 pm

The comment about the Moon being a stepping stone only makes sense if there is significant value-added in constructing or assembling your spaceship on the moon, as opposed to earth or in earth-orbit. Both earth and moon have a gravity well to escape, and if you’re shipping stuff to the moon just to send to Mars, you have to then escape it twice.

The moon base could only be more than a metaphorical stepping stone if a Mars ship could be assembled with less than half the effort needed to do it at Canaveral, or if the parts, fuel, etc. for could be extracted and refined/manufactured on the Moon for less than half the energy it would take here. Given the adverse conditions, that would seem unlikely.

The analogy might be 18th century sailing ships. Despite the fact their wood was largely extracted in North America and other hinterlands, they were still constructed in European ports, not in place at the lumberhead, at least until America itself was more heavily settled.

If we’re talking about settling the Moon (ie, with permanent habitation) as a likely precursor to any permanent settlement of Mars, that would make sense, but that’s really not what’s being discussed.


Andrew Boucher 01.10.04 at 8:01 am

Well, no one anywhere has seemed to remember or to know that Europe, with its Aurora project, has stated its ambition to send men to Mars and back by 2030. I would have expected the omission from Stateside blogs, but I thought Crooked Timber was supposed to be trans-Atlantic.


Jeffrey Kramer 01.10.04 at 8:53 am

The most crucial fact about this project is, that it is a bold, bold project. Even its critics must concede that it is BIG, and it is bold. And its mighty big boldness allows us to see, by contrast, the pettiness, the pessimism, the impotence, the inadequacy, the smallness, in short the crying need for Viagra which plagues the Democratic field.

Expect at least six pieces along those lines from Townhall in the next 24 hours.


Jeremy Pierce 01.10.04 at 3:28 pm

“If we’re talking about settling the Moon (ie, with permanent habitation) as a likely precursor to any permanent settlement of Mars, that would make sense, but that’s really not what’s being discussed.”

Actually, that’s exactly what’s being discussed.

What pretty much everyone here seems to be ignoring is that the shuttle program is at a dead-end, and this proposal doesn’t really involve devoting a lot more money to the space program. It’s mostly a transferral of funds to a different project, one with more long-term prospects.

Both of these facts were prominent in the first couple articles that came out discussing this. I haven’t been closely following what people have said since then, but I’m unaware of anyone contradicting those statements.


BruceR 01.10.04 at 6:16 pm

I disagree that’s what’s intended: a “permanent human presence” can mean other things besides colonization… a South Pole style research station being the most obvious one.

If Bush actually comes out and says “we need a thriving moon city, first, because it’s those colonists and their descendants who will build the ships that will navigate for us some day in the next century to Mars,” then everyone will know he’s cracked.

The closest long-term historical parallel might be the Norse colonization of Iceland, and then the Icelanders’ attempted and failed colonization of Greenland and North America, as opposed to the successful English/French direct Atlantic route. If the intermediate colony is already marginal (as the Moon would certainly be), it will not have sufficient surplus resources to extend new sub-colonies itself.


Brett Bellmore 01.11.04 at 2:14 am

I believe the Norse failed due to climatic changes, rather than being premature about the attempt. Rather as though a modern attempt to colonize the Moon failed due to abnormally bad solar flares.

In any event, about the only thing a lunar colony would really contribute to colonizing Mars would be experience in closed life support systems.


Stewart Kelly 01.11.04 at 7:06 am

Using the moon as a place to build a craft to go to Mars will *not* save money.

Building and maintaining a simple moonbase will be expensive enough. Building construction facilities for a Mars craft up near, or on, the moon will be massively more expensive, and I’d suggest logistically impossible at this point in time. All the parts for constructing the craft, and constructing the construction facility, would have to be sourced on earth, and then boosted up there, which means there’s no saving by getting around the gravity well problem because, well, you don’t actually get around it.

If you think these problems can be gotten around by constructing the parts on the moon using the moons natural resources, then you need to consider the even more massive costs of setting up multiple whole industries on the moon to suuply parts and the raw materials for the parts. How do you build the first factories? Again, you’d have too source equipment from Earth and you’re again faced with the gravity-well problem.

Sounds like a lot of time, money and effort to build just one Mars craft.

If you want to build a Mars craft then you need to do it the old-fashioned way: build it on earth and simply wear the associated gravity-well costs of launching. If the craft is really big you might have to build it in sections and stick them together in earth orbit, ala ISS. But using a moon base for construction will just be a massive waste of money and, I’d guess, is technically and logistically unfeasible at this time.


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