Mars, and the Moon 
by Adriano Autino 

 

After many leaks and denials over recent months, George W. Bush announced the new space program for the United States. Such program, if confirmed after the elctions, foresees the settlement of a permanent base (permanently manned? There is reason for scepticism) on the Moon within around ten years, as a first stage for human ventures to the fourth planet of our solar system Mars. 

For astronautic humanists, the first reaction to this news can only be a joyful one: to develop a space program more suited to the demands of human civilization in the third millennium is surely a worthier way of using taxpayer's money than to further enlarge the military venture. Less than one year ago, after the tragedy of the shuttle Columbia, I solicited the TdF' readers to address president Bush, asking him to give a greater strength to the space program, so that the seven astronauts of Columbia were not dead in vain. 

Obviously, other factors played a role in this choice. The recent Chinese enterprise, relaunching the competition, has put more arrows in the quiver of the space lobbystis at the USA Congress. The pressure of the military lobbies, fearing a Chinese powerful landing on our natural satellite, certainly played a key role, if not the main one. Bush wants to present himself, at the 2004 presidential elections, with a strong project, to set against the doubtful result of the Iraqi enterprise (even if some domestic politicians wanted to imitate America, even in this case!). The fact that the newborn Euro has begun to challenge the Dollar, and that the newly arrived currency is growing in importance besides the old dominant currency on the international scene, should be another relevant consideration, in the decision-making of the White House. In the scales of merit, this would be a vindication of prof. Prodi, and of those political Euro-pioneers who tenaciously promoted the European currency, despite all the divisions and the weaknesses of our national politicians. 

And, last but not least, 2004 will be the X-Prize' year. If one of the 26 competitors succeeds in winning the aspired prize, a myth will be demolished: that of the impossibility for a private enterprise to go out of the terrestrial atmosphere envelop. Please also see, on this topic, the wide informative article of Dr. Micheal Martin-Smith. 

And here we come to the least thrilling aspects of this new situation, that anyway we have to analyze. Are we seeing a true change of heart in the US Administration? If so, we are also faced with the prospect of a firm resumption of the government and military control on space. And this fact will not be liked by all those people (including myself) who hoped for the opening of the high frontier to private citizens, to enterprises, leading to the consequent development of a true space economy, out of government and agencies control, rather than a Space development still subordinate - especially in America - to the military culture. 

In my opinion, nevertheless, in this case we have to be pragmatic. I have deduced and advocated at different times, and from different points of view, that the terrestrial society, as a whole, has a vital need to overcome the gravitational well, beginning to exploit the energetic resources and the raw materials of the Solar System. And we need to make the first footsteps within few decades, or we will witness the decadence of our whole civilization, submerged by irreversible economic recession, authoritarianisms and barbarism, in a context of growing shortage of resources and environmental degradation. The opening of a new horizon, assuring the development for centuries to come, is the only event that can reverse this awful prospect. The freedom of 6,5 billion people can develop only in a picture of increasing economy, in presence of conditions of practically boundless development. Only the human expansion in the Solar System can nowadays assure such a perspective. Therefore I am asking: does it make sense today, while we are faced to such epoch-making alternatives, to turn up our noses, whether it will be still a statist conception opening the world-system, or even a militarist one? Contrarily, I respond: thank you China! If there wasn't, still, in the world, a statalist conception (though behind), perhaps our tired democracies were not so strong to re-take the walk toward the stars. Once the frontier is indeed opened, the democracies will rise to new ideological life (and probably at that time they will be favoured, since they will start from their more advanced ethical platforms), when a new metaphysics and a new wider vision of the world would become inevitable. 

In the end, on the arc of the millennia, what will really matter, and for which our descendants will thank us, it will be that the natural limits of this planet will have been indeed overcome, that a permanent base on another celestial body will have been installed, at the beginning of this third millennium. Our discussions and our hopes for a really free and pacific economy, where abundance is really accessible to everybody, will can continue only if this essential footstep will be accomplished. If this footstep were not made today, it would run the risk to be never made at all. 

And therefore today I applaud, sincerely, Mr. Bush's decision, if it is a true strategic decision, as capable of leading the rest of the post-industrial West, including lethargic Europe. Nor does the use of public money for the space enterprise scandalize me very much: for centuries public money have been used for non evolutionary purposes (wars, armaments, oppression, corruption). Are we sure that really the threshold of the fundamental evolutionary footstep (from the result of which depends the existence or not of a future for our civilization), is the most opportune moment to be "purist", to claim that the frontier must be opened by private ventures alone, and that agencies commits suicide tomorrow morning? Myself, I believe very much more in a transition process, in which the public powers plan the gradual decrease of their own competences in favour of a free market economy, guaranteeing thus the safeguard of long term objectives and not to disperse the scientific patrimony and technological know-how accumulated in so many years of activity (please see also the service Shuttle forever?)

Having rendered to Caesar that which is Caesar's (and the motto never appeared so fitting!), it would be crazy, for those people which have at heart the development of a true space economy, to lower the guard, and not to criticize, even bitterly, the strategically weakest aspects, of the new course. Is the objective of a human Mars mission within 20 years really realistic? I don't have doubts that we can establish a permanent base on the Moon today, or even 20 years ago. There we will gain essential experience of an environment of reduced gravity, in which there is no atmosphere, therefore we will need to learn to shelter from the strong solar radiations, and where we will learn to manage small closed artificial ecosystems, and where we will have to learn to... stay far away from our beautiful blue planet! The 10 years objective is surely not more ambitious than the one placed by president Kennedy, 45 years ago, even if, nowadays, the technology for lunar missions has to be fully reinvented, after 35 years thrown to the wind! If anything goes wrong on the Moon, we are three traveling days away, and possible recover missions are perfectly affordable. If something will go wrong during the trip to Mars, or on Mars, we would only be able to cry some other fallen colleagues, with serious repercussions on the credibility of the whole space program. 

The strategic objective is also weak, since it still targets only the exploration and the scientific experimentation. They keep on not speaking of industrialization of the Geo-lunar system, neither of production of solar energy from space and on the Moon, neither of building infrastructures for space commerce and space tourism. The true priorities are still neglected, but we can hope nevertheless they will emerge in the next years, if and once the road will have been really open. And here we come to the main factor. As a new-humanist, I believe that all people have a brain and an evolved mind (even the politicians!), thus they are perfectly able to assess, to change their mind, and to operate choices mostly directed to an evolutionary ethics, even if their initial rationales are fully pragmatist and utilitarist. It makes therefore sense, to me, to hope that an enlightened political leadership can exist, able to favor the access to space for all those people who will want to travel for tourism, to undertake, or also to see how and what they will think, sat in a lunar living-room.

[English language editing by Michael Martin-Smith]

[004.AA.TDF.2004 - 10.01.2004]