Monday, October 22, 2007

Did Bush's "Mars Mission" scuttle NASA climate research

Cross-posted at DeSmogBlog.

When the now-Nobel Laureate Al Gore proposed the DSCOVR mission way back in 1998, he was widely jeered by Republicans for interfering in the scientific business of NASA.
“Gore-sat”, “Gore-cam”, and “the multi-million dollar screen saver” were all quips trotted out on the floor of the Senate and Congress in opposition to the mission.
DSCOVR was a victim of such partisan politics. Even though it is fully completed at a cost of $100 million, this unique spacecraft remains in a storage box in Maryland, rather than providing critical data on the progress of climate change.
NASA quietly cancelled DSCOVR last year, citing “competing priorities”. What could they be?
Perhaps the biggest was George Bush’s January 2004 edict that NASA put a human on the surface of Mars.
Bush made the high-profile pronouncement at NASA headquarters as their entire staff watched by video. In an apparent effort to emulate JFK, he intoned that “human thirst for knowledge ultimately cannot be satisfied by even the most vivid pictures, or the most detailed measurements. We need to see and examine and touch for ourselves.”
Besides the fact that it is difficult to “touch” a Martian rock when you are wearing a space suit, there are two obvious questions: Where will the money come from to bankroll this massive intervention in NASA’s science program?
And, is this really a worthwhile use of scarce NASA resources?
Alarmingly, the short-term money is coming directly at the expense of existing programs like the DSCOVR mission. Bush instructed NASA to pull $11 billion from their budget over five years to pay for his Mars brainstorm – almost 13% of their funding. The only additional money he promised was $1 billion over five years - everything else is the proverbial pound of flesh.
That is just for starters.
The White House did not put an actual dollar value on how much this boondoggle would eventually cost – always a bad sign. What we do know is that the task of transporting humans 12,000 times as far as the Moon, though the searing radiation of empty space, and bringing them back alive is going to be pricey.
Some have estimated that Bush’s Mars announcement may cost over $1 trillion, making it the most expensive speech in history. For those of us unaccustomed to such astronomical sums of taxpayer largess, that is one thousand-billion dollars. In hundred dollar bills, it would weigh eleven thousand tons.
Supporters of the mission have derided these figures; instead saying this effort would cost a mere $229 billion. For the record, that would still pay for what the US government is spending annually on climate change research for the next 127 years.
Bear in mind that this radical surgery on NASA’s direction was apparently completed without any scientific peer review whatsoever. It instead came directly from the brain of the perhaps the most unpopular president in US history – and a man who has repeatedly scorned the scientific consensus around climate change.
As for the scientific merit of putting a human on Mars, the scientific community is less than enthused. The American Physical Society stated plainly in 2004:
...shifting NASA priorities toward risky, expensive missions to the moon and Mars will mean neglecting the most promising space science efforts."
Many scientists instead feel that robotic probes are doing a good job of exploring Mars at a fraction of the cost, and are only going to get better with advancing technology. Besides the fact that they do not need food, water, air or sleep, robots also do not need to be brought 300 million miles back to Earth.
Lastly robots pose a much smaller risk of contaminating Mars with Earth-based life than astronauts. Because Mars may harbor indigenous life forms, all the probes sent to the Martian surface have to be carefully sterilized.
Humans on the other hand are repositories of billions of microorganisms in our digestive tract. If there was ever space suit failure on Mars, not only would the astronaut quickly perish, but the Red Planet would also be hopelessly contaminated with tenacious life from our world. In this way, sending humans to Mars may irrevocably damage our scientific understanding of the very place we are trying to explore.
The scientific community is very clear about the most urgent priority now facing the planet: climate change. Yet by diverting billions away from existing climate programs like DSCOVR, George Bush essentially decided that sending humans to Mars for an interplanetary photo-op is more important than tackling global warming.
How much more important?
Assuming that it would cost only $229 billion to put a boot print on Mars, that is still over eleven million times as much money as it would cost to launch and operate DSCOVR – a mission described by Dr. Robert Park of the University of Maryland as “the most important thing we could be doing in space right now”.
There is little doubt at this point that George Bush is a fool. History will only elaborate on that conclusion. Yet beyond Iraq, the ballooning national debt and the loss of American soft power, perhaps his most shameful legacy will be his intransigent opposition to climate science.
As for Gore, there is a certain sweet vindication of being on the right side of history.
Now all we have to do is spring his spacecraft from jail.
Here are the previous stories we've done in our ongoing DSCOVR investigative series:

Part 1: the background

Part 2: How politics conspired to kill DSCOVR

Part 3: Digging for answers from NASA

Part 4: FOIA, NASA, DSCOVR - my acronym hell

Part 5: Whitehouse stonewalls FOIA requests

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