National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  January 23, 2004

Earthbound doubts about bold space initiative

Having cosmically gushed just a week ago over the glories of space exploration (Remember? We called the Spirit’s landing on Mars “a moment that transcended political, cultural and religious divides”), we were almost immediately surprised with the bold and daring Bush administration plans to return to the moon as a station for human space exploration.

So, what to make of that? Is this a further exploration of what we, a week ago, termed “common dreams” for all of humanity or is this something else?

The rather benign appearing robot on Mars, yet to do much actual travel around the planet as of press time, is certainly easier to love.

Might the bold gesture -- finish the space station, scrap the shuttle fleet, both by 2010, bring on the “crew exploration vehicle” by 2008, and return to the moon by 2020, setting up a station from which to launch missions into the beyond -- turn out more to be the dashing suitor loaded with promises and little else?

It depends, one supposes, on your point of view. If you’re the dear maiden NASA looking for new approval, new funding, goodness, just a little more adventure -- you might be ready to be swept off your feet.

Physicist John Bahcall who advises NASA, was obviously excited when he told The New York Times, “The whole agency is challenged to refocus its efforts. Everything will be turned upside down. It will be an exciting place to be.” He added that he was “thrilled that the U.S. has something to shoot for, not only to shoot at.”

Ah, but there’s the rub with some others, specifically physicist Michio Kaku and Bruce Gagnon, coordinator of the Global Network Against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space (which makes no attempt, as far as we can tell, to fashion a catchy acronym from that title). In a news release, Kaku worries about the use of technologies that could “backfire,” particularly the nuclear rocket, “which is now seriously being reconsidered after being rightly rejected for the past several decades.”

Gagnon is concerned, first, that the aim is to exploit the moon as a military base “as warfare is moved into the heavens.”

He also writes that the moon is “the site of rare helium-3, which many view as the replacement for fossil fuels as supplies dwindle on Earth.” No doubt Halliburton will be finished with the job in Iraq just in time to snag the lunar contract.

Others are more curmudgeonly about it, saying it’s all just political window dressing designed either to be a diversion from earthly woes or the equivalent of a heavenly photo op, where words like bold and daring and visionary attach to the president as the election season heats up.

Whatever the case, one thing seems clear: Though they talk about an additional billion dollars for the NASA budget to get things started, we who deal normally in far fewer zeros are advised by those who know that in the rarified world of federal space programs, a billion is a pittance.

Meanwhile, and just as we are signing off, the little robot on Mars has successfully made it to that planet’s (pardon any technical incorrectness here) terra firma and, we are told, will soon be making its way slowly through the rocks to some hills three miles away.

National Catholic Reporter, January 23, 2004

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