Sunday, January 18, 2004

It's way too soon to go to Mars. I find the idea of manned space exploration wonderfully exciting; when I was a young boy watching Star Trek I wanted to be the first astronaut to set foot on Mars. Despite this, I must oppose a government funded manned mission to Mars. Wait a generation, and if I'm still around, I may have a different opinion, but this nation should not be undertaking such a mission anytime soon.

There are really only two public goods that would come from a manned mission to Mars or the moon at this time: scientific discovery and national glory. As for the former, there is no reason to believe the difference between what robots on Mars and humans on Mars could discover is remotely worth the difference in cost. If there is, say, a large amount of accessible underground water on Mars and we can't find it using robots, then how exactly would humans on Mars do better? If clever humans find bacteria fossils that the robots missed then they will have found the most expensive fossils known to man.

As for national glory, it's not worth it. We went to the moon, and then we got bored and never returned. The same thing will happen if we go to Mars just for the sake of glory. Therefore, the question is, after we got bored with Mars, what would we have to show for the many billions we spent? Flags, footprints, and perhaps some abandoned structures on Mars. We will have made yet another monument to our own technological and economic might. Don't we have enough of those already? We're the richest, most powerful nation and everybody knows it. We know we can go to Mars if we want to; we don't need to prove it. We could have gone there decades ago. If the Chinese get there first that's fine by me. Columbus got to the New World first, but our primary language isn't Spanish. (My guess is that a lot of Americans disagree with me on this point, but even were I to concede that going to Mars is worth making them feel better, all I would be conceding is the need for a very brief Martian visit, which is not exactly what most space enthusiasts are looking for.)

One might argue that there are other public goods to consider, so let's look at some possibilities. First, consider military applications. The only military application of space I can imagine that involves leaving Earth's orbit is placing nuclear missiles on the moon or Mars. Such missiles would provide a second-strike capability that would make mutually assured destruction even more assured. The problem is that nuclear submarines already offer a terrestrial second-strike capability, and even if subs are deemed too vulnerable to an enemy navy, placing missiles on the moon or Mars certainly does not require sending men along with them. (There's also the matter of future anti-ballistic missile countermeasures, but let's not open that can of worms.)

Another oft-claimed public good from the space program is that of technological spin-offs. For these to be a net public good we must assume that 1) the level of private sector research spending is lower than economically optimal, and 2) the government can do research efficiently enough that the loss of private sector research due to increased taxes is not more than the increase in public sector research. However, if these assumptions hold then why not cut out the middle man and just have the government fund technology research?

Finally, we consider the possible public good of the insurance a Martian colony would provide against something like an asteroid wiping out our species. Simply put, there is none. For the foreseeable future, no Martian colony will be able to survive without help from Earth. If we die down here, they die up there. If you believe the Apocalypse is definitely coming in this century then you might conclude we need to go to Mars now to hasten the day when we do have a self-sufficient Martian colony, but I'm somewhat more optimistic.

There simply are no public goods that make sending men to Mars worthwhile. Therefore, if you want to go to Mars, that's your affair. If you're young, work very hard over the coming years and then, considering the fact the economic growth and technological improvement are exponential with respect to time, perhaps if you get really rich you and your rich friends will have sufficient funds to retire on Mars. As the years go by, more and more people who want to live on Mars will be able to afford to do so, and while they're there the enormous economic incentives to be as self-sufficient as possible will eventually produce a self-sufficient colony.

All that is many years from now, though. If we are fortunate we will witness it in our old age, like Simeon of the Gospel of Luke, who waited long but saw the baby Jesus before he died. I firmly believe the time will come when man spreads to the heavens, but it is not our time.

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