Experts question Mars proposal

Could President Bush’s ambitious plan to send humans back to the moon, to Mars and beyond inspire the same excitement that the first moon race did in the 1950s?

“I think people are really turned on by it. It would be fun, there’s no doubt about it,” said Mark Devlin, associate professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, who added, “There is no new money for this. … Something’s got to give.” In the President’s plan, that may be the International Space Station and shuttle flights; work on the Station and flights are slated to cease by 2010.

Official figures place the price tag of the President’s exploration plan at $12 billion over the next five years, with $11 billion of that cost coming from a reallocation in NASA’s five-year, $86 billion budget, he added. The elder George Bush administration’s plan to put humans on Mars would have cost more than $400 billion. “The 400 billion number is certainly more along the lines of what I expect it to cost,” said Devlin.

Science or engineering?

Will the latest proposal lead to scientific discoveries and technological advances that could offset the cost? Ruth Schwartz Cowan, the Janice and Julian Bers Professor of the History and Sociology of Science, argued that virtually no important advances came out of the first moon landing in 1969, except knowledge of the moon itself.

Other missions to space have led to a host of discoveries and innovations such as satellite communication, used for everything from live news broadcasts to cell phone networks; a kidney dialysis machine based on technology from the Mars Viking spacecraft, and infrared hand-held cameras from the shuttle that help firefighters battle brush fires.

While it would seem that scientific discovery remains NASA’s main goal of space exploration, things such as the space station are actually more like large-scale engineering exercises, said Devlin, who added that the current plan could also end up focusing on engineering, rather than science.

The space proposal comes at a time unlike that of the last moon landing, because there is not a race to any sort of finish line. During the Cold War, people in the United States were “terrified” of what the Soviet Union could do, according to Cowan. Development of rockets was actually part of the Cold War race, and it was widely believed that if the Soviet Union could develop one that could penetrate the Earth’s orbit, they would use it to spy on Americans. When President Kennedy announced the United States would develop the technology to go to the moon, it was profoundly reassuring to Americans.

“I was surprised when I first heard that Bush was considering this. It seemed to me to be a poor political move,” said Cowan. “The constituency which once existed…it’s just not there anymore because the Cold War isn’t there anymore.”

Originally published on February 12, 2004