Sorry, Buzz Aldrin, we’re not sending people to Mars by 2029
The second man to walk on the moon has an odd op-ed in the Washington Post today, “Time to Boldly Go Once More.” Not surprisingly, he wants to go to Mars, but a key reason he offers – to study climate change – is very strange indeed.
Today is the 40th anniversary of the launch of Aldrin’s moon-landing mission with Neil Armstrong and Mike Collins. Aldrin notes:
A race to the moon is a dead end. While the lunar surface can be used to develop advanced technologies, it is a poor location for homesteading. The moon is a lifeless, barren world, its stark desolation matched by its hostility to all living things. And replaying the glory days of Apollo will not advance the cause of American space leadership or inspire the support and enthusiasm of the public and the next generation of space explorers.
Can’t argue with that. But then he argues for “more distant and sustainable goals to revitalize our space program”:
Our next generation must think boldly in terms of a goal for the space program: Mars for America’s future. I am not suggesting a few visits to plant flags and do photo ops but a journey to make the first homestead in space: an American colony on a new world.
A Mars mission is typically projected to cost tens of billions of dollars, though if by “homestead” Aldrin means to suggest this is a one-way mission, it would certainly be a lot cheaper, albeit infinitely riskier. Also, I’m not certain why we need a sustainable revitalization of our manned space program when we haven’t even figured out how to live sustainably on this planet, and we have far more urgent need for that kind of money, a point I’ll return to.
What is most amazing about this article is that Aldrin actually offers up climate change as a reason to go to Mars:
Robotic exploration of Mars has yielded tantalizing clues about what was once a water-soaked planet. Deep beneath the soils of Mars may lie trapped frozen water, possibly with traces of still-extant primitive life forms. Climate change on a vast scale has reshaped Mars. With Earth in the throes of its own climate evolution, human outposts on Mars could be a virtual laboratory to study these vast planetary changes. And the best way to study Mars is with the two hands, eyes and ears of a geologist, first at a moon orbiting Mars and then on the Red Planet’s surface.
Very disappointing – especially from a man whose entire career was built around staggering advances in science.
“With Earth in the throes of its own climate evolution” could win awards for the lamest euphemism of the year. Earth is in the throes of humanity destroying our livable climate with unrestricted greenhouse gas emissions, a climate that has been remarkably stable for some 10,000 years (see “Must have PPT #1: The narrow temperature window that gave us modern human civilization“).
If Aldrin understands and accepts the fact that science says humans are the primary cause of recent, rapid terrestrial climate change, he should just say so. Of course, if he did that, he’d eliminate much of his argument that we need to go to Mars to study its geologic-time-scale climate change (see, also, The “Other Planets Are Warming” Myth). As an important aside, Mars has such a radically different atmosphere and environment that its benefit to understanding human-caused climate change on Earth is quite limited at best and could be completely captured by multiple unmanned probes for a few billion dollars.
[Note to Washington Post: Is the only kind of climate change that editorial page editor Fred Hiatt will let anyone write about is what has occurred on other planets?]
Three years ago, I made a very provocative statement at a conference sponsored by Technology Review:
Romm predicts that the US [manned] space program will be essentially abandoned by 2025 because we will recognize that every available dollar must be put into combatting the effects of global climate change.
As I wrote at the time (see “Whither the Manned Space Program?),
I believe that, thanks to the refusal of this administration to take any concrete action to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, come 2009, the next President – and every subsequent President – will have to make action on climate a larger and larger priority in the federal budget. And if we don’t follow the advice of NASA’s James Hansen and aggressively deploy GHG-reducing technologies in the next decade, then, come the 2020s, we will be so desperate to deal with global warming that we will divert funds from many discretionary areas of the budget, such as the space program.
A NASA scientist came up to me afterwards to make sure that I was not speaking about abandoning NASA’s terrific work on Earth sciences, which has helped make everyone aware of the climate problem. Not at all. Though, sadly, again, the Bush administration has been busy cutting back that valuable research in order to fund the manned space program, including its plans to put humans back to the Moon and Mars. And yet, ironically, thanks to the Bush administration, it is increasingly doubtful we will put humans on Mars this century, at least.
This may well be a suprising point for many Americans – and I count myself as a space enthusiast – but on our current path of reckless disregard for the climate, the manned space program faces the certainty of slashed budgets.
We have passed the point at which avoiding catastrophic warming can be done easily. When the country final does confront the reality of catastrophic climate change – Hell and High Water – we will dramatically realign our priorities. At that point, which will almost certainly come by 2025, it is inconceivable we would ever spend the many tens of billions of dollars needed to put humans on Mars. Aldrin writes:
If we avoided the pitfall of aiming solely for the moon, we could be on Mars by the 60th anniversary year of our Apollo 11 flight.
I do think that in 2029 humans will be desperately struggling for survival on a planet with a changing climate not terribly hospitable to human civilization. I’m afraid, however, that planet will be Earth (see “Memorial Day, 2029“).