Looking beyond vision
How to sell the plan?
The biggest challenge both Bush and NASA face is convincing the public that this exploration program is both important and affordable. It will be an uphill battle, based on several recent polls. Both an AP poll conducted before Bush’s speech, and a New York Times/CBS News poll conducted around the date of the announcement, showed the public split evenly on their approval of a human mission to Mars. (A CNN/Time poll released late Sunday showed 60 percent opposed to such a mission.) The AP poll found a majority of the public, while in favor of manned spaceflight, preferred to spend funds on domestic programs rather than space exploration. The New York Times/CBS poll showed that a majority thought that the costs and risks of a human lunar base were not worth the costs.
This response—lukewarm at best—to the plan means that NASA and the administration will have to go onto the offensive to sell the plan to a skeptical public. One approach they will likely take is to promote the scientific advances that such an exploration program will provide. Indeed, astronauts working on the surface of Mars and the Moon will be able to work far more efficiently than robotic missions, and collect data and make discoveries no robotic spacecraft could conceivably accomplish. It seems unlikely, though, that science alone will be sufficient to sell the plan. The public has some interest in science, particularly in pretty pictures and answers to some big scientific questions (where did we come from? are we alone?) However, much of that can be achieved by robots at a small fraction of the cost. The cancellation a decade ago of the Superconducting Supercollider (SSC) and its $8-billion price tag shows that there are limits to how much people are willing to pay for science alone.
Another selling point will undoubtedly be spinoffs. The same White House fact sheet that provides details of the new initiative includes a section on how “space technologies have contributed to U.S. industry, improving our quality of life and helping save lives.” Yet this answer is also unsatisfying. We do not go into space to develop better pacemakers and powered food products. The fact that these innovations can be traced back to technologies first developed for space is a beneficial side effect, not a justification for the initial investment itself. “If you want stickless frying pans,” Carl Sagan once said, “then invest in better frying pans, not the space program.”
What does this leave us? Perhaps the best way to sell this program of exploration is to emphasize the exploration aspect itself. Despite all the criticism about the potential cost of such an effort, there is considerable public interest in human missions to the Moon and Mars. Bush’s speech was the featured story on national newscasts and made the front pages of newspapers throughout the US and around the world. The possibility of a human mission to Mars is the cover story of this week’s issue of Time magazine. The Moon and Mars in particular are fascinating because they are, in a way, tangible, thanks to their presence in the night sky or their place in culture and lore. They are destinations that seem far more intriguing than even the space station, let alone other scientific pursuits like the failed SSC. To the public, the Moon is infinitely more interesting than a muon.
That interest doesn’t constitute a blank check, as the polls mentioned earlier suggest. However, an exploration program that can be run largely within the confines of NASA’s current share of the budget—less than one percent of the total federal budget—and without gutting other programs, stands a fair shot at success. (The latter concern will be an issue in a couple weeks, when NASA releases its FY2005 budget and details what programs will be cut back to pay for the beginning of this initiative.) Ensuring a significant commercial role to this project may be one way to get around this problem. With several companies, including LunaCorp, SpaceDev, TransOrbital, studying commercial robotic missions to the Moon, the possibility exists for partnerships with NASA—ranging from data purchase agreements to carrying NASA payloads on commercial missions—that could provide cost savings and also create a commercial infrastructure that could outlast any government initiative. (See also “Let’s add a wrinkle…” in this issue.)
Vision is only the beginning
Last year space policy experts derided NASA for lack of a vision. At a conference in Washington last month, one speaker suggested that what the vision was would be less important that simply having a vision at all. Now, the President, for better or worse, has given NASA a vision that extends out to the Moon and beyond, and to 2020 and beyond. Yet, it is clear from both current circumstances and recent history—notably SEI—that articulating a vision is only the first, smallest step towards realizing it. That vision must seem interesting, worthwhile, and affordable if it is to stand any chance of success.
This also means that we must be willing to make hard choices in the months and years ahead: if achieving the vision is that important, there must be no sacred cows allowed to remain as obstacles in the path towards success. “Merely announcing a bold new plan to travel to the Earth’s Moon or to Mars is not sufficient,” Sen. Ernest Hollings (D-SC) said in a November speech. “We must challenge our assumptions, question our decisions and designs, revisit our approaches, and rethink our Nation’s ambitions and goals for space. We must submit ourselves to the discipline to begin anew. The future of space and our Nation’s reputation that we carry into history rests in the balance.”
“Mankind is drawn to the heavens for the same reason we were once drawn into unknown lands and across the open sea,” Bush said in his speech last week. “We choose to explore space because doing so improves our lives, and lifts our national spirit. So let us continue the journey.” That journey now has a destination, but it remains to be seen if we will muster the resources required to reach it.