"Barack be nimble ...
July 14, 2011J.R. Dunn
Many of us will recall Dan Quayle, then serving as vice-president, getting a savage media beating for an error-filled statement he made about exploring Mars.
Mars, Quayle said, made a good target for future space efforts because: "Mars is essentially in the same orbit.... Mars is somewhat the same distance from the Sun, which is very important. We have seen pictures where there are canals, we believe, and water. If there is water, that means there is oxygen. If oxygen, that means we can breathe."
The media was quick to point out (and point out, and point out...) that:
- Mars is not in the same orbit as Earth
- The "canals" had been debunked years before
- Mars has no running water
- And though it has an atmosphere, at a surface pressure of .087 per square inch, it pretty much exists only by courtesy
Several of these points weren't so much errors as misinterpretations -- Mars is within the so-called "goldilocks zone", the volume around the sun which would allow life to arise, much the same as Earth. It has been discovered since that water does in fact flow on Mars -- though not, unfortunately, in canals.
Which brings us to the asteroids, and the latest politician to trip over a heavenly body. But don't expect to hear anything from the media about it, because it involves He Who Makes No Mistakes. While hailing the final launch of an American spacecraft for the next decade, Barack Obama said, "We've set a goal to let's ultimately get to Mars. A good pit stop is an asteroid."
Well, not quite. If he's speaking literally, a spacecraft on its way from Earth to Mars is on a ballistic trajectory; to change course for a pit-stop will cost large amounts of fuel, a definite wasting asset when you're millions of miles from . This is assuming that there is an earth-grazer asteroid (an "Apollo-Amor object," in technical parlance) in the neighborhood at the time, an astronomically unlikely assumption. Nobody is going to be making "pit stops" on the way to Mars.
Metaphorically, in the sense that somehow reaching the asteroids is an intelligent step to take before aiming for Mars, it's still absurd. It happens that both the moons of mars, Phobos and Deimos, are captive asteroids. Any trip to Mars would, therefore, be a twofer. Many plans for a Mars mission envision an original landing on one of the moons to establish a base for further exploration. From one of the moons, astronauts could easily examine the Martian surface via drone for a safe landing spot along with interesting areas worth closer examination. At the same time, a separate team could learn all we need to know about the particular class of asteroid they were sitting on.
Here's my interpretation: the space program has always been a major liberal target, on the grounds that it "wastes money" that could better be spent smuggling guns into Mexico or assuring that Detroit has the funds to tear down its 12,000-odd abandoned with a 90% rakeoff for the Kirkpatrick family. (It's also viewed as "Republican", with good reason. Its most fervent recent backers were the Bushes, pere and fils, and the aforementioned Dan Quayle.)
They've come very close to accomplishing this. The Shuttle is now history. There is no near-term replacement. Mars is off the table. The NASA team that kept the U.S. in the game is being dispersed, with a small remnant retained for work on the Orion project, scheduled to fly by 2016, though we'll see inevitable "slips" from year to year.
A favored liberal method of shutting down anything they are opposed to is the "replacement" technique. They insist on replacing the program in question with an alternative that is nowhere near as good but which mollifies the opposition. Then, once a little time has passed, they shut down the replacement while ridiculing opponents for trying to put over something so second-rate and useless. We saw this most recently with the F-22 v. F-35 debate. F-22 Raptor production was shut down on the grounds that the F-35 would act as a "replacement." Now, several years on, we're hearing that the F-35 is simply "not good enough." One of Panetta's first moves in the Department of Defense will be an attempt to shut it down. (For some reason, both the Republican Party and the conservative establishment have found it very difficult to wrap their collective minds around this process. The libs pull it time and again, and each time it comes as a surprise. I'm not sure why -- it doesn't strike me as being particularly complex.)
That's what we're seeing here. Mars has always been the key goal of manned space exploration. It has fascinated mankind since early days. There have been thousands of novels written about it, and dozens of , all enrapt with speculation as to what we'll find there - including the most tantalizing possibly: alien life. A dozen different methods of getting there have been proposed, several of them cheaper than anything now on the drawing boards. There is nothing in the inner solar system that beckons us on more firmly.
Now Mars is gone, replaced by... the asteroids. And what are asteroids? The small number of people familiar with the topic knows that there are three distinct varieties: nickel-iron -- that is, large chunks of mixed rock and metal, silicaceous, or stony, and carbonaceous, which, for all practical purposes, are what you'd get if you took a gravel pit and hoisted it out into space. In other words, they're rocks. Bet on it -- more sooner than later, our science-minded, patriotic liberals will cry out, "You want to spend how much to visit some rocks?"
And that will be it. A long-term leftist goal, the destruction of the American space program, will have been encompassed. I am well aware that Obama said that he believes that Mars will be reached "within his lifetime." It's also clear to me that he did not say by whom.
So let's be thankful for Bezos, Branson and the other millennial tycoons who are applying their fortunes to opening up the final frontier. In the end, it may well turn out that space is yet another one of those things where capitalism can accomplish what government cannot.
(A final irony: Arthur Clarke fans out there will no doubt recall their feelings of pity when Clarke -- not to mention other British writers -- insisted that the ancient, decrepit UK would play a large role in space exploration. Well... Branson's formal title is "Sir Richard". We could do worse.)
J.R. Dunn is consulting editor of American Thinker, and author of Death by Liberalism.
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