Bush's Mars programme a new "Star Wars" dream?

Socialist View - Spring 2004

"We do not know where this journey will end, yet we know this: human beings are headed into the cosmos." It was with these words that George W. Bush announced to the world that he had approved NASA projects for manned space missions to the Moon and Mars. Bush's presidency has been marked by war not the pursuit of science, so what is he really up to?

By Stephen Boyd

NASA's current robotic missions on Mars have attracted enormous interest around the world. Between 4 January and 19 February NASA's website received a staggering 6.53 billion hits, surpassing Earth's population of 6.3 billion people. But despite this huge interest an Associated Press poll showed that 55% of Americans would rather any spare cash was spent on Earth dealing with the problems which afflict their health and education systems. As one American commentator said, "You can't have war, cut taxes, have the economy in a garbage pail and spend billions going into space".

Initial estimates for Bush's plans range from $400 billion to $1 trillion. That's how much commentators estimate it will cost to send a manned mission to the Moon by 2015, followed in 2020 by an extended mission to establish a permanent base, followed by a manned mission to Mars at an unspecified date.

Without doubt these missions would result in significant and important scientific advances for humanity. Respected scientists believe they may find life or fossils of previous life on Mars, a discovery that would rank as one of the most significant in human history. But does anyone really believe that a warmonger like Bush who is responsible for the deaths of 60,000 people in Afghanistan and Iraq is motivated by such noble aims?

That such an announcement comes at the beginning of an election year, with the US economy in uncertain waters and a daily dose of bad news flowing from Iraq would indicate that this was the opening shot of Bush's presidential election campaign.

Bush's popularity has plummeted: from the 90%+ high at the start of the war on Iraq, now he is 9 points behind the Democratic candidate Kerry. Bush and his advisors by announcing these new ventures into space are in part attempting to create a "Kennedyesque" moment for Dubya.

Trying to capture a moment of "history" to portray Bush in the same way that Kennedy was in 1965 when he made his famous speech about the first manned mission to the Moon.

If Bush succeeds in selling his plan to the Congress then the main beneficiaries would be the NASA centres in three states: Texas, Florida and California, which will be critical in November's presidential election. NASA's biggest human space-flight contractors, Boeing and Lockheed - among the Bush campaign's biggest contributors - also stand to make billions.

We may also be witnessing the re-emergence of space as a political weapon. It is not unconnected that these latest US space plans come after China's first successful manned space flight and the Chinese announcement to send a manned mission to the Moon by 2010.

The European Space Agency has a programme named Aurora which is a 25 year project for a mission to Mars.

During the Cold War, space was used as an ideological battleground between the USA and the USSR. "The original moon race was, of course, far more about ideology than science. Money was lavished on the moon-shot primarily to prove which system - communist and restricted, or capitalist and free - would prevail. NASA's victory seemed to answer that question [sic]" The Economist 15 January 2004.

Bush has claimed that this project will be funded by re-directing $11 billion of current NASA funding, an additional $1 billion of federal funds and by saving $3.5 billion (annually) by retiring the space shuttle. NASA's human space projects have been notoriously expensive and cost many times their original budgets.

The Apollo Moon programme cost $100 billion in 2002 dollars, the shuttle has cost $150 billion (according to University of Colorado research) and the unfinished space station has cost $25 billion so far.

George Bush Senior proposed a Moon/Mars plan in 1989, but when NASA came up with a costing of $400 to $500 billion the plans were shelved.

Bush Junior and his administration may have announced these plans cynically knowing that they will fail to receive the required funding, or that the decision to cancel them will fall on the shoulders of his successors. In the meantime they hope it may be a vote catcher.

There is an even more sinister motivation behind this project - the militarisation of the space programme. Bush may be embarking on a "mission" to realise Ronald Reagan's "Star Wars" dream. Plans for the second Gulf War originated in a neo-conservative think tank in Washington.

The same group of Republican Party strategists have proposed another target for military occupation - space. The authors of Rebuilding America's Defences wrote, "For US armed forces to continue to assert military pre-eminence, control of space...must be an essential element of our military strategy," The Guardian 1 March 2004.

According to The Guardian, US Defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld chaired a high level space commission, which concluded that military control of space was the only way for America to avoid a "space Pearl Harbor". "Against the backdrop of the biggest increase in US defence spending for over 20 years - reaching $399 billion in 2004...America's civilian and military space programme are converging, and extra funding which Bush proposed in order to reach Mars is likely to accelerate this convergence," James Wilsdon, The Guardian 1 March 2004.

The head of NASA, Sean O'Keefe, is being spoken of as the most likely candidate for Defence Secretary if Bush is re-elected! If the right wing fundamentalists behind the "throne" in the Oval office get their way then nuclear weapons based in space may not be far off.

Even if the motivation behind Bush's manned space programme were genuine, questions arise as to whether the spending of $1 trillion on a trip to Mars can be justified. Over 800 million people in the world go hungry on a daily basis. More than one billion live on less than a $1 a day. Against this background it's hard to find any justification. $1 trillion would be better spent on feeding the hungry and curing the sick never mind using it and the scientific expertise to deal with the potentially catastrophic problem of global warming.

Ironically a leaked report from the Pentagon has put climate change due to global warming as the number one security threat facing the USA, even surpassing Bush's obsession of the "war on terror". The secret report claims that "Climate change over the next 20 years could result in a global catastrophe costing millions of lives in wars and natural disasters," The Observer 22 February 2004.

The report which was suppressed by the White House for four months warns that major European cities will be sunk beneath rising seas. Britain and Ireland will be plunged into a Siberian climate by 2020.

More than 400 million people in subtropical regions lives will be at risk - nuclear weapons could be used by countries to defend and secure dwindling food, water and energy supplies. And the Bush administration denies that climate change even exists.

Capitalism is responsible for the millions who languish in absolute poverty and for global warming. The profits of the obscencely rich are pursued, and defended at all costs even if it means the destruction of the earth. The burning of fossil fuels, especially oil is responsible for climate change. Yet instead of re-directing society to alternative sources of energy such as wind, water and solar power Bush and Blair go to war to make sure the oil conglomerates can make more profits and cause further depletion of the ozone layer!

All of these crimes against humanity and the planet could be overcome by a world wide democratically planned economy - a socialist economy. A socialist society would use our planet's resources and the scientific expertise we have attained to end hunger, cure disease and protect our ailing environment.

Under socialism, human space exploration would not take place at the expense of our Eco-system or the poor masses. Neither would it be used to develop even more deadly weapons of mass destruction. Instead space exploration would be used to further our knowledge of the universe, of the origins of our own planet and life itself.

Unfortunately, under capitalism science and space exploration will remain the tools of barbarians, to be used to enslave and exploit billions, to create the ultimate weapons of mass destruction in space.

The Contents Page for this issue of Socialist View
A couple of articles on science can be got here.