By Stephen, Andrew
New Statesman (1996) , Vol. 133, No. 4673
Should man go to Mars? I must say that I find the pictures of the red, eerily lonely landscape of the planet sent back by the Nasa Spirit and Opportunity rovers to be rather exciting; what a pity that the British Beagle lander failed and could not send us back even more information. But the prospect of human beings landing there and exploring that red surface seems even more enticing. No wonder I was stirred by President Bush when he gave the reasons for a putative manned mission to Mars. "Why the moon? Why Mars?" he asked in a moment of soaring oratory. "Because it is humanity's destiny to strive, to seek, to find--and because it is America's destroy to lead."
It was a visionary moment indeed for the president, echoing that of JFK in 1961 when he pledged that America would land a man on the moon by the end of that decade (as actually happened on 20 July 1969). But this was not Boy George talking. The inspiring vision of America sending human beings to Mars came from the first President Bush, nearly 15 years ago. And, as his boy did in the retread version in 2004, he fudged how the country would actually pay for such a boldly ambitious venture. Nothing, naturally, happened then. Now Boy George has earmarked a hopelessly paltry $1bn to the project, saying that Nasa's existing $11bn annual budget can be diverted from current programmes.
I'm told that, technically, Boy George's announcement is complete bunkum. David Letterman, the late-night talk-show host, even says it is a sign that America's 43rd president has gone back to drink. "Lunatic" is the double entendre others prefer. Or, as one of the no-hoper Democrat candidates has quipped, perhaps Boy George hopes to find Saddam Hussein's WMDs on Mars.
Indeed, the proposal shows all the signs of being written hastily on the back of an envelope by Dubbya's speechwriters. The notion is that the International Space Station be used as a staging post, before going on to build a colony that would sustain human beings on the moon. From there, rockets would whoosh astronauts off to Mars. Simple, really. "Establishing an extended human presence on the moon could vastly reduce the costs of further space exploration," pronounced Boy George. "Spacecraft assembled and provisioned on the moon could escape its far lower gravity using far less energy and thus far less cost." There is more of the 2004 version of Bushian wisdom, too:
"The moon is home to abundant resources. Its soil contains raw materials that might be harvested and processed into rocket fuel or breathable air."
Er, would you repeat that please, Mr President? I thought the moon was a deeply barren place with nothing worthwhile on it for humanity. The last astronaut to go there went in 1972. Such is the geological value of the moon that not even an unmanned probe has gone there, either. But Boy George's plan calls for robots to go to the moon by 2008, and for man to return there by 2020. Then the red earth of Mars beckons, and we can all thank former President George W Bush.
Why is it all such drivel, then? First, the International Space Station has become a hugely costly project that does not do anything very useful. Nasa would be quite happy to abandon it, but America has binding agreements with Russia to continue its partial funding of it. Very embarrassingly for the US, Nasa now even has to rely on Russia for transporting astronauts to and from the station. The ageing space shuttle fleet has been grounded since the Columbia disaster a year ago. …