Let me make the main message of this article clear at the very beginning:
- In January 2004, I was impressed by Bush's speech about the long-term goals of the space exploration program.
The Congress has approved the higher funding for NASA
http://www.nytimes.com/ ... /24nasa.html
which is viewed as support for Bush's visions.
I have read the complaints of the American Physical Society, and it was a less pleasant reading for me. These texts
http://www.aps.org/ ... (press release)
http://www.aps.org/ ... (report)
mostly sound like demotivating statements of bureaucrats - no doubt, in reality, there is a lot of outstanding scientists among them - who are always ready to kill every specific idea and replace it with a lot of neutrally sounding, boring cliches. They say, among other things
- The plan is extraordinarily difficult.
- It could threaten the funding of some other existing projects KQ, UH, PT, SJ.
Concerning the second point above: it is exactly the whole point of the new vision of Bush - and any other vision of a similar kind - to re-evaluate the ideas what is important and attractive about the space exploration program and which projects should be completed and canceled. Some scientists just to believe that once their research of something has been accepted as legitimate research, it must be funded forever - and they would even like to hear that it is important forever. This is not how science within a finite society can work in the long run.
In fact, I would find it very useful if an influential politician who still knows how to be excited by something - like Bush - looked at other fields in science including particle physics. I think that the particle physicists - namely the experimentalists - are not using their resources efficiently either, and they're continuing to do many things that are almost guaranteed to lead nowhere, even though one could find many other projects that may have very clear and totally amazing outcomes. How much do we believe that Tevatron will bring us anything new and important? Of course that the world must preserve its family of skillful experimentalists even during the times in which the progress in the experiments is nearly frozen; but even such conservation should be done efficiently, and with a clear idea about the long-term goals.
Although I am a very theoretically oriented person, it's clear that I don't really care about KQ, UH, PT too much - and I care about SJ just a little bit. A human mission to Mars is something on a completely different level. Of course that such a mission is not just a matter of pure science. It is a way to realize the dreams of many of us - scientists as well as other people - dreams that we have had since we were little boys and girls.
A human mission to the Moon - or even to Mars - is something amazing and irresistable. And the idea of a more permanent base on the Moon or on Mars would represent new steps towards the dreams about a big future of our civilization. People were able to fly to the Moon in the 1960s and early 1970s, but it seems much more difficult for us today. What happened with us?
Let's list a few numbers:
- The International Space Station's (ISS) total cost has been about 100 billion US dollars
- The canceled Superconducting Supercollider (SSC) would only cost 8 billion dollars
- The total budget for various telescopes etc. between 2000 and 2010 is about 5 billion dollars
- The total cost of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is about 1.5 billion dollars
I may be a biased particle physicist, but the fact that we could have built 12 SSC supercolliders instead of the ISS is shocking. I have almost no idea what the ISS has been really good for - in what sense it was "better" or "more exciting" or "more scientifically interesting" compared to the first flight of Yuri Gagarin, for example. Note that it's nearly as expensive as the war in Iraq.
On the other hand, humans on Mars would be inspiring for the whole humankind.
Many people are scared by the dim future of the Hubble Space Telescope. You know, the funding in 2009 should be moved to the James Webb Space Telescope - a telescope that will focus on the infrared spectrum. My guess is that the Hubble will be viewed as giving us "nothing really new" much before 2009. Once it retires, it can be privatized or given to another country, and so forth. The progress must simply go on, and it is a completely wrong approach to assume that we will continue to work with the same technology forever. Of course that there must be completely new projects and new machines. And if there is a clear direction, it motivates the people to work on their specific tasks. And finally, it also encourages progress in the industry.
And let me make it sure that there exists no physical principle that will prevent the people from visiting Mars.
The report of the APS also says that the humans on Mars would also be counterproductive because they would contaminate the environment and prevent us from investigating the primary question - namely whether there has been life on Mars. I find such arguments ludicrous, and it's bad if such arguments are used to inhibit the progress in the space exploration program.
First of all, the humans could only "contaminate" the environment by the usual, terrestrial forms of life - and if such forms are found on Mars, everyone will believe that they were brought from the Earth anyway. If other forms of life - like different patterns replacing RNA/DNA - are seen on Mars, then the contamination by the terrestrial forms of life means no problems. Finally, if there's been any life on Mars, it does not seem that it could have been too impressive. I just think that Bush's vision of future life on Mars - something that we can initiate - is a much more exciting idea.
The possibility that there will be a usable base on Mars in this century is 100 times more intriguing than some hypothetical speculations that a robotic probe could find some specific organic compound on this planet. If we were able to create more permanent bases on the Moon or on Mars, it would give us new tools to investigate the Universe, and new hopes to expand our civilization to other places in the Cosmos.