Who Said Anything About Mars?

Interesting that all the speculation about Bush’s space announcement today focused on launching a mission to Mars. But the president never said anything about Mars: He talked about some initiatives NASA already has under way (finishing the space station, retiring the shuttle), tweaked an existing initiative (building a new space plane, as NASA plans, but one with the ability to leave Earth orbit), and announced a new scheme: to go back to the moon. After that, he said something about preparing “for new journeys to worlds beyond our own,” but nothing about how any of this will be paid for after a second Bush term, especially given the massive deficit he’s creating.

One is tempted to recall the first loud call to boldly go to the Red Planet, from Spiro Agnew in 1969. NASA had lots of people, including Wernher von Braun, all ready to dive into a Mars program as soon as the Apollo missions to the moon proved successful. As I recall it — caveat there — Agnew made a speech soon after the Apollo 11 launch talking about how we’d go to Mars next. His remarks inspired Chicago Sun-Times cartoonist Bill Mauldin to sketch the vice president wearing a bubble helmet, soaring into the air and saying with a wave, “See you on Mars!”

Nixon and his people dismissed Agnew and his support for the idea as if he were the village idiot. Nixon had decided the to curtail the space program, and that was that. Personally, I think Agnew was too mean to be the village idiot. Just like Bush. But maybe a more solid connection between the two initiatives is politics. The political realities of 1969 — dominated by the Vietnam War — didn’t support a big new space program. And it’s doubtful that the political realities of today — dominated by a much less defined but expensive military effort and the likely reality that future administrations will have very little discretion to commit tens or hundreds of billions to something like Mars — will support one either.

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