This article appeared in the NYU/Global Beat Syndicate on July 7, 2003.
Next January a rare confluence of political and scientific events will offer a golden political opportunity for a Democratic presidential candidate looking to stand out from a crowded field. At Kennedy Space Center on June 28, NASA plans to launch the second of its twin Mars Exploration Rovers. If all goes well, both will bounce down and begin roaming around the Martian surface, transmitting breathtaking video images to millions of captivated viewers in January 2004.
That is the same month most Americans will begin paying attention to the Democratic presidential campaign. Some clever candidate ought to seize the moment and declare an intention to send not just robot geologists to Mars, but women and men.
In the summer of 1997, the Mars Pathfinder captured the world’s imagination. NASA reported 265 million web hits in the first five days after its July 4 landing. The new NASA ventures should spark at least as much enthusiasm. The exploring vehicles will go much further afield. Pathfinder’s rover traveled just 100 meters during its entire operational lifespan. The Mars Exploration Rovers are designed to traverse — and televise — about 40 meters of virgin Martian terrain every day for three months.
And just as the riveting voyages of Gemini and Apollo distracted us from the quagmire of Vietnam (“Thank God I’ve still got my astronauts” said LBJ one particularly bleak morning), many Americans may well welcome a respite from orange alerts, post-war Iraq, and a war on terror that our top leaders tell us will likely never end.
Right now, few Americans are paying much attention to the Democratic presidential campaign. A recent poll found only one in three of us could name a single Democratic candidate. Traditionally most American voters focus on presidential politics only twice: between the first of the year and the time the two nominees are chosen — usually by March or April, and between Labor Day and the November elections. Attention will be greatest during the debate-filled month before the kickoff Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary: January 2004.
It is possible that a bold commitment to send humans to Mars could dramatically distinguish one candidate from the rest, appealing to voters’ interests and their imaginations — especially among the normally apathetic.
Such a candidate, both visionary and shrewd, could argue that our national purpose must be about more than the catastrophes we prevent, but the triumphs of spirit we endeavor to pursue. He or she could insist that a vital civilization must aspire to do things that have never been done before, and can demonstrate our true triumph over terror by sending humans to Mars — bringing a piece of the World Trade Center along.
Just as with President John Kennedy in 1961, such a candidate could set a deadline — in this case, July 20, 2019 — the fiftieth anniversary of the first steps on the moon. Apollo took only eight years to get from Kennedy’s commitment to: “Houston, this is Tranquility Base. The Eagle has landed.”
The inevitable objection that a mission to Mars would “cost too much” can be easily answered. NASA’s “Design Reference Mission” estimates that a steady commitment of $3 billion to $4 billion per year could send three round-trip missions to the Red Planet within 15 years. That is about a quarter of the current NASA budget, and only about 1 percent of our $300-$400 billion per year defense budget. If we have to spend that “forever” on defense, why not spend a tiny fraction of that for something spectacularly worth defending?
When Arthur C. Clarke was asked in 1999 what Twentieth Century development he never could have anticipated, he replied: “That we would have gone to the moon — and then stopped.” Humans do not live by bread alone. Deep down we all crave a little romance, adventure, some grand quest that causes the blood to course a little more quickly through our veins.
Perhaps the candidate’s announcement should instead on December 17, 2003. That day, 100 years ago, the Wright Brothers launched us into the dawn of human flight. Next winter offers a rare opportunity to set a course toward another world, and maybe, to win the Democratic presidential nomination as well.