Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality
Alien to Reality
By David G. Young
Washington, DC, January 13, 2004 --
IIt was a big week for aliens. The Bush Administration floated two new election-year proposals designed to get voters all fired up about aliens of both international and extraterrestrial origin. On the more earthly front, the president proposed a plan to give millions of illegal aliens a way to gain legal status with renewable 3-year work visas. And on the extraterrestrial front, Bush offered a boost to the search for alien life by proposing a permanent moon base as a stepping stone to a manned trip to Mars.
While these two proposals share a connection in lingo, they couldn't be further apart in their relation to reality. Bush's proposed immigration reform, while quite welcome, simply provides legal acknowledgement of the reality that millions of undocumented migrants have been working in America for decades. His space exploration plan, however, denies reality on every level, including fiscal constraints, scientific obstacles, and the laws of economics.
On the fiscal level, a moon base and a mission to Mars would serve to flood yet more red ink into growing deficits caused by the biggest spendthrift presidency in a generation. An earlier proposal to send men to Mars was estimated by NASA to cost $450 billion - a price tag that simply cannot be funded out of NASA's current $15 billion annual budget.1 Initial details of Bush's proposals have suggested work toward these goals starting with a mere five percent increase in NASA's funding. Even with funds freed up by his tactic of junking the expensive fleet of Space Shuttles, there is no way that the goal of reaching Mars can be accomplished without opening the floodgates to massive new spending. And this doesn't even begin to address the costs of building and servicing a permanently manned station on the moon - costs that would make the $100 billion International Space Station look like a bargain.2
The well-reported scientific obstacles of going to Mars begin with space travel's harmful effects on the human body. Weightlessness causes dangerous bone loss, and radiation destroys cells throughout the body. These problems have plagued space station inhabitants, such as Valery Polyakov who left Mir after 439 days in space. 3 Humans traveling to Mars would have to spend at least this long away from earth - nearly a year for the two way trip, not including time spent on the surface. And unlike life on a space station, interplanetary travel would put astronauts well beyond the radiation-protective bubble created by Earth's magnetic fields, virtually ensuring a shortened life span - if not a space burial - for anyone making the trip to Mars.
Although these obstacles may not be impossible to overcome, the costs of doing so are unknown, will make the fiscal problem even worse than already discussed.
But it is economics that is the biggest argument against Bush's plan for a moon base and a manned trip to Mars. Simply put, there is no practical reason to send humans to either place. Antarctica, Northern Canada, and most of the Sahara Desert are devoid of population because the cost of living in such harsh climates gives no practical reason to live there. Yet all of these places resemble the Garden of Eden when compared with the surfaces of Mars and the moon. There is no breathable air. Atmospheric pressure is so low that exposed flesh would boil away. Temperatures drop far enough to freeze exhaled carbon dioxide into solid rock. And on the moon, daylight surface temperatures would sear skin on contact.
The idea that humans living in such an environment could economically mine minerals is ludicrous. In such environments, the lack of oxygen, water and food would make those substances far more valuable than platinum, diamonds, or anything else that could conceivably be mined. The costs of delivering these life-supporting necessities from earth, or producing them in such a harsh environment, would completely eclipse any value that could be gained from such mining.
Of course, this being an election year, it probably doesn't matter to President Bush whether his proposals are in line with reality or not. Giving a boost to the space program will earn the president support from space enthusiasts and aerospace workers alike. But those workers should be wary of retaining their jobs searching for alien life. In an era of such tight fiscal constraints, it may prove more profitable to find alien life across the solar system using newly legalized alien workers from the other side of the border.
Related Web Columns:
Modernizing into Obsolescence
An Acceptable Risk
The Oxymoron of Safe Space Travel, February 4, 2003
An Astronomical Failure, October 31, 2000
A Long Time Ago
The $50 Million Carnival Ride, October 6, 1998
1. Houston Chronicle, Costs to make or break Bush space proposal, Jan. 9, 2004
2. Los Angeles Times, Elusive Space Station Pressure Leak No Threat, Russians Say, January 6, 2004
3. World Almanac and book of Facts 2003, Memorable Moments in Human Spaceflight, Fall 2002