To the Moon!

President Bush has laid out his vision for space exploration. Reaction has mostly been lukewarm. Naturally, there are opponents and proponents, but in my mind it is a good start. That we've changed focus to include long term manned missions on the Moon and a mission to Mars is a bold enough move for now. What is difficult is that this is a program that will span several decades... and several administrations. There will be competition and distractions. To send someone to Mars on the schedule Bush has set requires a consistent will among the American electorate as well. However, given the technology currently available, it might prove to be a wise move.

A few months ago, in writing about the death of the Galileo probe, I examined the future of manned space flight and drew a historical analogy with the pyramids. I wrote:
Is manned space flight in danger of becoming extinct? Is it worth the insane amount of effort and resources we continually pour into the space program? These are not questions I'm really qualified to answer, but its interesting to ponder. On a personal level, its tempting to righteously proclaim that it is worth it; that doing things that are "difficult verging on insane" have inherent value, well beyond the simple science involved.

Such projects are not without their historical equivalents. There are all sorts of theories explaining why the ancient Egyptian pyramids were built, but none are as persuasive as the idea that they were built to unify Egypt's people and cultures. At the time, almost everything was being done on a local scale. With the possible exception of various irrigation efforts that linked together several small towns, there existed no project that would encompass the whole of Egypt. Yes, an insane amount of resources were expended, but the product was truly awe-inspiring, and still is today.

Those who built the pyramids were not slaves, as is commonly thought. They were mostly farmers from the tribes along the River Nile. They depended on the yearly cycle of flooding of the Nile to enrich their fields, and during the months that that their fields were flooded, they were employed to build pyramids and temples. Why would a common farmer give his time and labor to pyramid construction? There were religious reasons, of course, and patriotic reasons as well... but there was something more. Building the pyramids created a certain sense of pride and community that had not existed before. Markings on pyramid casing stones describe those who built the pyramids. Tally marks and names of "gangs" (groups of workers) indicate a sense of pride in their workmanship and respect between workers. The camaraderie that resulted from working together on such a monumental project united tribes that once fought each other. Furthermore, the building of such an immense structure implied an intense concentration of people in a single area. This drove a need for large-scale food-storage among other social constructs. The Egyptian society that emerged from the Pyramid Age was much different from the one that preceded it (some claim that this was the emergence of the state as we now know it.)

"What mattered was not the pyramid - it was the construction of the pyramid." If the pyramid was a machine for social progress, so too can the Space program be a catalyst for our own society.

Much like the pyramids, space travel is a testament to what the human race is capable of. Sure it allows us to do research we couldn't normally do, and we can launch satellites and space-based telescopes from the shuttle (much like pyramid workers were motivated by religion and a sense of duty to their Pharaoh), but the space program also serves to do much more. Look at the Columbia crew - men, women, white, black, Indian, Israeli - working together in a courageous endeavor, doing research for the benefit of mankind, traveling somewhere where few humans have been. It brings people together in a way few endeavors can, and it inspires the young and old alike. Human beings have always dared to "boldly go where no man has gone before." Where would we be without the courageous exploration of the past five hundred years? We should continue to celebrate this most noble of human spirits, should we not?
We should, and I'm glad we're orienting ourselves in this direction. Bush's plan appeals to me because of it's pragmatism. It doesn't seek to simply fly to Mars, it seeks to leverage the Moon first. We've already been to the Moon, but it still holds much value as a destination in itself as well as a testing ground and possibly even a base from which to launch or at least support our Mars mission. Some, however, see the financial side of things a little too pragmatic:
In its financial aspects, the Bush plan also is pragmatic -- indeed, too much so. The president's proposal would increase NASA's budget very modestly in the near term, pushing more expensive tasks into the future. This approach may avoid an immediate political backlash. But it also limits the prospects for near-term technological progress. Moreover, it gives little assurance that the moon-Mars program will survive the longer haul, amid changing administrations, economic fluctuations, and competition from voracious entitlement programs.
There's that problem of keeping everyone interested and happy in the long run again, but I'm not so sure we should be too worried... yet. Wretchard draws an important distinction, we've laid out a plan to voyage to Mars - not a plan to develop the technology to do so. Efforts will be proceeding on the basis of current technology, but as Wretchard also notes in a different post, current technology may be unsuitable for the task:
Current launch costs are on the order of $8,000/lb, a number that will have to be reduced by a factor of ten for the habitation of the moon, the establishment of La Grange transfer stations or flights to Mars to be feasible. This will require technology, and perhaps even basic physics that does not even exist. Simply building bigger versions of the Saturn V will not work. That would be "like trying to upgrade Columbus?s Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria with wings to speed up the Atlantic crossing time. A jet airliner is not a better sailing ship. It is a different thing entirely." The dream of settling Mars must await an unforseen development.
Naturally, the unforseen development is notoriously tricky, and while we must pursue alternate forms of propulsion, it would be unwise to hold off on the voyage until this development occurs. We must strike a delicate balance between the concentration on the goal and the means to achieve that goal. As Wretchard notes, this is largely dependant on timing. What is also important here is that we are able to recognize this development when it happens and that we leave our program agile enough to react effectively to this development.

Recognizing this development will prove interesting. At what point does a technology become mature enough to use for something this important? This may be relatively straightforward, but it is possible that we could jump the gun and proceed too early (or, conversely, wait too long). Once recognized, we need to be agile, by which I mean that we must develop the capacity to seamlessly adapt the current program to exploit this new development. This will prove challenging, and will no doubt require a massive increase in funding, as it will also require a certain amount of institutional agility - moving people and resources to where we need them, when we need them. Once we recognize our opportunity, we must pounce without hesitation.

It is a bold and challenging, yet judiciously pragmatic, vision that Bush has laid out, but this is only the first step. The truly important challenges are still a few years off. What is important is that we recognize and exploit any technological advances on our way to Mars, and we can only do so if we are agile enough to effectively react. Exploration of the frontiers is a part of my country's identity, and it is nice to see us proceeding along these lines again. Like the Egyptians so long ago, this mammoth project may indeed inspire a unity amongst our people. In these troubled times, that would be a welcome development. Though Europe, Japan, and China have also shown interest in such an endeavor, I, along with James Lileks, like the idea of an American being the first man on Mars:
When I think of an American astronaut on Mars, I can't imagine a face for the event. I can tell you who staffed the Apollo program, because they were drawn from a specific stratum of American life. But things have changed. Who knows who we'd send to Mars? Black pilot? White astrophysicist? A navigator whose parents came over from India in 1972? Asian female doctor? If we all saw a bulky person bounce out of the landing craft and plant the flag, we'd see that wide blank mirrored visor. Sex or creed or skin hue - we'd have no idea.

This is the quintessence of America: whatever face you'd see when the visor was raised, it wouldn't be a surprise.

Update 1.21.04: More here.