Mars or bust

Published: Friday, January 16, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 15, 2004 at 10:43 p.m.
Announcing his new initiative to send a manned mission to Mars, via a pit stop on the moon, President Bush waxed eloquent: "We'll build new ships to carry man forward into the universe, to gain a new foothold on the moon and to prepare for new journeys to the worlds beyond our own."
But why bother? The way things are going in free-wheeling, borrow-and-spend Washington, we'll be able to walk to Mars using sky-high stacks of IOUs as an interplanetary bridge.
By all means, let's go to the moon and beyond. And let's have world peace, and universal health care. And don't forget a secure retirement future for all Americans, a clean environment, great schools and, oh yes, energy independence.
Just keep making those promises and getting Congress to write those checks, Mr. President. The Chinese will keep buying up our debt, and our children won't know what hit them when the bill comes due.
No, of course our reach should exceed our grasp. And man's destiny may yet lie beyond the stars. But both the timing and the amorphous nature of Bush's Mars-or-bust pronouncement reek of election-year politics.
When Bush said, "We do not know where this journey will end," he is being disingenuous. It will end when the nation teeters on the brink of bankruptcy, brought about by the tax-cutting, free-spending, no-limit-borrowing policies of this president and this Congress.
It's not that NASA isn't due for a course correction. Its aging fleet of shuttles is past due for retirement.
But the $1 billion of new money that Bush says he wants to direct to NASA during the next five years won't go very far in developing the next generation of manned space vehicles.
In the meantime, the administration wants NASA to redirect $11 billion of its existing budget toward Mission Mars.
Figuring out how to do that without jeopardizing its scientifically vital, but unglamorous, unmanned exploration missions figures to be a challenge.
As John Bahcall, a physicist at Princeton, told The New York Times this week, "It is unclear whether science will benefit by or be destroyed by this new proposal."
It is likely that in announcing his new boldly-go-where-no-man-has-gone-before initiative, President Bush's immediate objective is neither the moon nor Mars, but rather, Texas and Florida.
Both states are vital to his re-election success, and both have a major economic stake in the revitalization of the space program.
In that respect, Bush's mission to Mars may be an election-year crowd-pleaser - a bright, shining bauble to distract voters from the war in Iraq and the fiscal crisis in health care and the coming implosion of Social Security and all of the other ticking time bombs that Bush and Congress seem intent on ignoring for the sake of re-election expediency.
But taken out of the context of campaign rhetoric, the president's Mars initiative simply cannot be taken seriously. It is, essentially, a dust-off of the same promise the previous President Bush made when he was running for re-election.
Without taking away from the importance of advancing the frontiers of science, on all fronts, the ugly truth is that disastrous, politically driven fiscal policies must inevitably rob America of its ability to dream big and then turn that dream into reality.
"It is time for America to take the next steps" into space, Bush intones.
Just keep stacking up those IOUs one atop the other, Mr. President, and soon we'll be able to walk all the way to Jupiter.

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