by Paul E. Akers
Despite the past week's good news -- the launch of the Magellan Venus probe and the completion of the latest space shuttle mission -- America has let things go to the point where only a heroic effort, a mighty mustering of popular and political resolve, will permit it to be first on the planet Mars. The Soviets are solidly on track for a manned mission to Mars shortly after the year 2000.
Before malfunctioning in late March, the Soviet Union's Phobos 2 probe closely surveyed the Martian surface, seeking a landing site for a Mars expedition. Through 1998 Moscow plans to launch four more robot scouting missions to Mars of increasing sophistication.
A manned Mars spacecraft -- laden with fuel, equipment, eight to 10 crew members and their sustenance for a 20-month journey -- would need to be assembled in low-Earth orbit (boosting such a colossus from Earth's surface would require a lake of propellant). The Soviets already have potential spaceship "factories" in their Salyut and Mir space stations. Aboard these satellites cosmonauts have lived and worked for up to 12 straight months, solving many of the physical and emotional problems that would confront Mars-bound humans. Some technologies must be refined before the Russians are off to Mars, but there are no stumpers.
Meanwhile, the United States has launched no Mars probes since Vikings 1 and 2 in 1975. (A modest climate surveyor is slated for 1993 liftoff [sic -- it's '92; it *get there* in 1993!]). Funded in dribs and drabs, NASA sputters along with no heroic purposes, but continues to send aloft space shuttles on esoteric missions that excite public interest only when they go awry. Now the Congressional Budget Office advocates scrapping plans for a long overdue U.S. manned space station. Truly, as the New Republic notes, America is lost in space.
Why should America race the Russians to Mars? NASA mission controller James E. Oberg has identified three great space "firsts" -- a manned lunar landing, a manned landing on another planet, and a manned landing on a planet in another solar system. Apollo 11 took care of number one. As for number three, astronomers have positively found no other planetic stars in the Milky Way, and the next nearest galaxy, Andromeda, lies 2 million light years away.
The upshot is that sending a human to Mars will be the last great space milestone of this and countless generations to come. Will we simply concede this epochal triumph to the Soviets?
America should vie for the Martian prize for other reasons:
1) Americans live in a historically great nation. When not engaged in large enterprises, however, Americans, a diverse people, tend to dwell on and enlarge their differences. The Apollo program was the last of these "great enterprises." Neil Armstrong's boots sank into moon dust in 1969, near the peak of the Vietnam War. Riven by the war and other issues, Americans nonetheless paused a moment to acknowledge their transcendent national achievement. When successive presidential elections turn on the question of who will raise taxes, one suspects an atrophy of the American spirit. Preoccupation with personal material gain comes when citizens lose confidence in the power of their government to shape history.
2) If scientific education were a bench, American school children would be its 90-pound weaklings. A recent National Science Foundation/ Department of Education survey of science and math skills revealed that U.S. kids trail not only the Japanese, but also their peers in South Korea, Spain, Ireland and French Canada. Such finds are dismally familiar. A national crusade to be first on Mars could inspire youngsters and young teachers already enchanted by Luke Skywalker and the Enterprise crew to excel in the hard subjects that would put them or their children into space. The scholastic reforms attendant to such a movement could ensure a starring U.S. role not only in space exploration but also in key Earth-side technologies.
Nor would all the fallout from a Mars movement be "practical." Starting with the exploration of Mars, a large-scale U.S. penetration of the galaxy surely would unveil new realms of myth and metaphor to a society starved for beauty.
3) Last summer, four U.S. scientists, including ex-astronaut Brian T. O'Leary, released amazing computer-enhanced photographs shot in 1976 by Viking 1. The photos show, rising from Mars' cratered Cydonia region, what soberly can be construed as the architecture of a long-dead civilization: a five-sided pyramid, a rocky fortress, and, most astonishing, a giant humanlike face complete with brow, eye socket, nose and mouth. Suddenly, many people's long love affair with the idea of life on Mars (even if that life were eons extinct) flamed anew.
Until now Mars has been a tease. The "canals" viewed by 19th-century astronomers, thought to be Martian-made waterways, turned out to be chance geological formations. Even the oxygen coaxed from Martian soil in Viking lander experiments, most scientists now think, came from inorganic chemical reactions -- not biological ones. We haven't even found microbes, much less men. Yet the Cydonia photos send the imagination bubbling.
The chief objection to a solo U.S. program to put people on Mars first is expense. But as a percentage of gross national product, Oberg says, a Mars expedition would be 0.6 percent, compared to 2.8 percent for Apollo. Going to Mars would be cheaper in real terms than the old lunar program because most of the necessary hardware has been developed under other space programs. Moreover, if America's federal deficit is more than twice that of the Soviet Union, so is our GNP.
Nor is it sensible to avoid the grand challenges while awaiting the advent of the perfect economy. Reeling from the Great Depression, America after Pearl Harbor fought and won a global war. FDR did not say that defeating Hitler and Tojo was not in his budget. The war actually rejuvenated the U.S. economy. A strong space program, spearheaded by a manned Mars flight, might be comparably healing.
Paul E. Akers, a writer who lives in Richmond, is a member of the World Space Foundation.