Joe Buff is a professional writer on national security and defense preparedness. He is also a novelist of tales of near-future warfare featuring nuclear submariners and Navy SEALs in action at their bravest and best. Two of Joe's non-fiction articles on future submarine technology and tactics, which appeared in The Submarine Review, received literary awards from the Naval Submarine League. His latest novel now out in paperback, Crush Depth, made the Military Book Club's Top 20 Bestseller List after being selected as a Featured Alternate of the Club in late 2002. His most recent work, Tidal Rip, was released from Wm. Morrow in hardcover in November, 2003, and quickly made the Amazon.com Top 100 General Thrillers Bestseller List. Joe's next novel, Straits of Power, is scheduled for hardcover release in autumn, 2004.
Joe is a Life Member of the following organizations: U.S. Naval Institute, the Navy League of the United States, the Fellows of the Naval War College, CEC/Seabees Historical Foundation, and the Naval Submarine League. Joe's father was an enlisted man in the Navy (Seabees in the Pacific Theater) from 1948 through 1953, and his uncle was a merchant mariner on the North Atlantic convoys late in World War II, before being drafted into the U.S. Army to serve in the Occupation of Nazi Germany.
Nope, sorry to disappoint any sci-fi fans in the readership, but this essay is not about security issues regarding attacks by Martians. What this will address are facts and thoughts about the continuing manned exploration of space, in the context of foreseeable U.S. military and homeland defense challenges and needs, and international relations. Included will be some now-declassified "secret history" of America's early space program, as a baseline for understanding future priorities.
What's Mars Got to Do with Anything?
The answer is simple, and raises serious questions about public policy, sources of funding, and ultimate intent: On January 20, 2004, in his State of the Union address, President Bush announced a proposal to send men back to the moon and, later, onward from there to Mars. On February 4, 2004, the European Space Agency -- a sort of European Union analogy to NASA -- unveiled plans to send a manned mission to the moon, followed by a manned voyage to Mars a few years after that.
Is there an echo in here?
A European Space Agency spokesman denies being in any competition with NASA. Beware of unsolicited denials. Members of the European Union have already seriously discussed forming their own combined military force independent of NATO. Let's face it -- another space race seems to be on. China may have contributed to this resurgent rivalry when they announced their own desire to send men to the moon.
With the Global War on Terror continuing to rage on Earth, is the goal to visit other worlds misguided or ill-timed?
Space is Dangerous and Expensive
One thing we've known since the earliest years of putting things into orbit -- proven over and over again with each new ambitious space-exploration initiative -- is that cost, time, and risk factors will be very significant, and sometimes will run way out of control. This is true regardless of who manages and sponsors the program, and how the program is organized. The civilian and high-profile government agency, NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration); the shadowy classified intelligence gathering entity, NRO (National Reconnaissance Office); and private corporate efforts in designing and building launch boosters and satellite payloads, have all had their triumphs and tragedies. Similarly, both successes and failures have been achieved around the world in countries as diverse as the UK, Japan, Brazil, China, Russia/ex-USSR, and trans-national groups including the European Space Agency (supported by 15 Member State governments) and Arianespace, a commercial organization founded in 1980 and backed by shareholders in 12 European countries.
Prior Programs Often Underperformed
It is not my purpose here to throw stones or fix blame. But a gut-check seems advisable, for perspective, on previous efforts to put people and robotic probes into space.
1. The first men on the moon: The total costs of this noble effort -- to expand humanity's horizons and push the envelope of science and technology -- if inflation-adjusted into 2004 dollars, would pay the entire costs of Operation Iraqi Freedom and the reconstruction of Iraq several times over. The Apollo program, which led to those famous moon walks, turned out to be something of a dead end; we haven't been to the moon in 30 years. And remember, three men did die -- in the Apollo 1 capsule fire.
2. The Space Shuttle program: The terrible in-flight mishaps in which Challenger and Columbia were lost with all hands need not be rehashed. But the initial promise of the Space Shuttle fleet, and the subsequent realities, show a large gap between dreams and implementation. The Space Shuttles were supposed to be reusable on almost a weekly basis, and by the sheer volume of their trips to orbit and back would provide the cheapest cost per pound to get anything up and away from Earth. Yet in practice, because the equipment proved so temperamental in so many different ways, the frequency of launch never came close to the mark, while the cost to prepare the vehicles for each launch vastly exceeded initial estimates. Ultimately, the shuttles became the most expensive way of all to get people, satellites, or even discarded space junk into orbit. (Disposable commercial boosters do the job at much lower cost.)
3. The Hubble Space telescope. Blunders during the development and testing of this breakthrough science instrument led it to be launched with serious optical flaws that should have been easy to detect and fix while still on the ground. This required an expensive repair mission by astronauts making space walks from a Space Shuttle. The repairs were entirely successful, and Hubble has astounded both astronomers and laymen with beautiful imagery for years -- but the whole mess concerning its optics should never have happened in the first place. Yet it did happen.
4. Spy satellite boondoggle: As recently reported on Military.com, the NRO is at present in disarray. Remedial steps are being taken, but a window of vulnerability for the United States has yet to be closed: Several critical intelligence gathering satellite launchings failed, while designs of next-generation spy satellites are badly behind schedule.
5. The International Space Station: Lord, don't even get me started on this one! Wildly over budget, yet with capabilities scaled back so far from the original vision as to be as worthy of being ignored for future exploitation as President Bush seemed to imply in his speech. A staggering example of the failure of international cooperation, if there ever was one.
6. Previous Mars exploration probes: About three dozen robotic probes have been launched over the years to Mars, by several countries. Of these, two-thirds have failed partially or utterly. Batting .350 might be great in baseball, but it's something to give us pause if human lives become involved.
Space Exploration and War are Intertwined
Military applications and space exploration in general are to some degree always inseparable. Both America's and the Soviet Union's space programs grew out of the products of WWII, especially the V-2 rocket. This was the first ballistic missile which actually left the earth's atmosphere, to achieve greater range to its target -- mostly London or Antwerp. The Space Race of the late '50s and '60s was a contest on many levels between America and the Soviet Union, but one of those levels was very importantly military.
There were two drivers to the original Space Race which related to national defense. One was that outer space wasn't (and isn't) subject to overflight restrictions that apply to in-atmosphere spy planes such as the U-2. By international treaty law it was legal for Cuba and Russia to shoot down American U-2s that violated their air space -- and they did. But even when anti-satellite weapons began to emerge on both sides in the Cold War, it was illegal to attack another country's spacecraft, manned or unmanned, just for invading your privacy. (Not that this stopped the USSR from taking some potshots at American satellites with high-power ground based lasers, or so it's rumored.)
The "secret history" of the 1960s space race is that spy satellite and computer technology of those days was limited. There were some things on the ground that could be noticed from space, and observed over time, much more effectively by the Mark I human eyeball -- connected to the human brain with its great facility for pattern recognition, memory, and perception of change on both broad and narrow scales down on the Earth's surface. This is one main reason the U.S. wanted men in orbit ASAP, and one reason the USSR didn't like the idea of falling behind -- in fact they achieved many "firsts." It's no coincidence that all the early astronauts (and cosmonauts) were military officers.
The Moon as High Ground
From a hypothetical perspective, the moon as the ultimate high ground in some future major war makes sense. For one thing, because the moon is locked into an orbital resonance so that it always points the same "face" toward our home planet, any observation station or weapons platform installed on the moon's near side provides 24/7/365 direct line of sight at Earth. Since the moon orbits Earth every 28 days, while Earth rotates (by definition) daily, it works out that any spot on earth will face right at the moon about once every 23 hours. A moon base is thus ideal for studying earth multispectrally, granted from very long range (250,000 miles), but with impressive endurance once a proper base is set up. The long dwell time with a good viewing angle over any place of interest on Earth could nicely supplement the different tradeoffs available from low earth orbit satellites (close but very brief overhead passes), and from geosynchronous satellites (steady look-down but at only one fixed part of the earth via any one satellite, from 23,000 miles away).
The other military advantage of the moon as high ground is that its gravity is only about one-sixth of Earth's, and it has no atmosphere at all. Thus, to launch a large warhead of some kind at a target on Earth, by booster rocket, magnetic rail gun (powered by solar panels?), or other firing technology, is much easier than vice versa, i.e., bombarding the moon from Earth.
Of course, one hopes that such eventualities never transpire. This also begs the question of the cost-effectiveness of establishing these bases and weapons platforms on the moon to begin with. But the physics of it all is real.
I've attempted to craft the discussion so as to lead up to this final question: Why send men to Mars soon, or even within the lifetimes of any adult alive on Earth today? Mars is much too far away (tens of millions of miles) to be of any practical military use. Ah, but you say, what about the scientific value of such an expedition? I answer your question with a question: Yeah, what about it? What can men do on Mars that robotic space probes can't do much more safely and more cheaply? This issue requires a lot of careful and objective study before we jump on the bandwagon of another, possibly misbegotten, space race to get somewhere just for the sake of getting there.
Readers should know that a controversy has long raged among academic scientists and NASA planners about the relative merits of manned and robotic space exploration. Different highly qualified professionals take different sides, for what often seem like equally good reasons. Personally, I think the advancement of science and technology is vital on both a practical applications level, and on a visionary-spiritual level, for the benefit of all humankind. But we must distinguish critically between reality and science fiction. The late Gene Roddenberry may have done us a disservice by making space appear much more accessible to people like you and me than it actually is.
The title of this essay was chosen on purpose, to frame a closing parable. We can certainly send men "at" Mars -- even if their spacecraft explodes and kills them seconds after liftoff. We can definitely send men "toward" Mars, recognizing that a malfunction might cause them to fail to enter Mars orbit, and go sailing onward off into eternity. We can even send men "to" Mars, in the sense of landing them there to safely walk the ruddy, rocky, alien soil in spacesuits -- but those same men might not survive the trip home.
Until we do bring them back to Earth alive, and they can stand before us and say truthfully, "We are men from Mars," the mission has not succeeded. The odds of failure, based on past experience, are high. The non-monetary costs of such a disaster -- in terms of lives lost, prestige squandered, and civilian morale and confidence undermined -- call into substantial doubt whether the entire men-on-Mars effort should even remain high on our list of national (or international) goals for years to come. The advancement of science is important, but so is plain common sense. For another generation at least, let expendable, capable robotic spacecraft and rovers do the work.