Monday, April 2, 2012

A leading Democrat who argues against a manned Mars mission should also argue against the California High-Speed Rail Project

Regardless of your opinion about Massachusetts House Representative Barney Frank, here is his opinion about the US sending a man to Mars.  I know, that's not the topic of this blog.  

However if you substitute "High-Speed Rail in California" for  "manned or human mission to Mars" or related wording, everything he says fits.

And, as a Democrat, he makes a compelling case for not sending a man to Mars AND for not building a High-Speed Rail project in California.

The article, from the Huffington Post, asks the question: 

Mars Debate: Should U.S. Green-Light Manned Mission To Red Planet?

Dr. Robert Zubrin, the head of the Mars Society, in his discussion, says the US should.  And why not?  Imagine how he and his advocacy organization would prosper from such a massively funded agenda.  

Representative Frank disagrees.  And he sees it from a productivity and economic point of view which will affect each and every one of us. 

Remember, when reading this, substitute California High-Speed Rail for Mission, human or Manned Trip to Mars.

Two alternative formulations about how to make public policy decisions present themselves to me in analyzing whether or not America should commit the enormous amount of money it will take to launch a manned trip to Mars. One comes from the discipline of economics; the other from the patter of one of our great comedians of the '40s, '50s, '60s. 

The economists give us the concept of opportunity costs -- of the reality that any decision you make in a universe of limited resources to use some of the resources for a particular objective has two aspects: first, what you can achieve; second, all the things you cannot achieve because you have put those limited resources to the first objective.

Henny Youngman's way of putting it was, characteristically of him, terse, funny and wise: "How's your wife?" he asked himself in his rapid pattern. "Compared to what?" he answered.

Thus in two ways the case against committing hundreds of billions? trillions? -- to sending human beings to Mars and back.

The question is not whether America as a society can afford it. It is whether the America of today, with a very large public debt that needs to be reduced -- although not immediately because that would damage our economic recovery efforts -- and very difficult decisions to be made about how much of our national wealth is to be committed to other national priorities, can afford to spend a very large chunk of money over the next several years on a project that is justified more in philosophical and even spiritual terms than scientifically.

I very much favor and have voted for funds for the scientific exploration of Mars, as part of a space program dedicated to the advancement of science. But the addition of human beings to the program adds astronomically to the expense, with very little compensation in scientific knowledge. 

The arguments for manned space travel have always involved notions of both building national character and of exhibiting our strengths, although during the Cold War period, there was clearly an element of military competition as well. 

I understand that many will feel a great deal of pride in sending human beings to Mars and back. But if we do that, given the current severe fiscal constraints facing the federal government -- I do not see on the horizon the political will to raise taxes in anything like the amount that we would need to offset such a project -- we will send human beings to Mars only at the expense of improving the quality of our life here at home, and providing for those who are greatly in need.

Medicare and Social Security are already under assault from those who would undo our great 20th century accomplishment of substantially reducing the likelihood that most people will live out their last years in poverty. Programs to provide for poor children are under assault. Funding for medical research -- both economically important to the U.S. and obviously important for the quality of life -- is no longer likely to increase by the amounts it has previously seen. These are difficult problems now. Committing untold sums to send human beings to Mars and back exacerbates every one of them.

In the economists' terms, the opportunity cost of sending human beings to Mars will undoubtedly be substantially reduced medical research, far less money available to develop alternative forms of energy, less support for the nutrition and health needs of poor children, fewer police and firefighters on our streets, and far less money to help students with limited means get the college education that will be very important if some of them are to have genuine equality of opportunity.

In Henny Youngman's terms, given the large amounts of money involved, the comparison is between the satisfaction we will feel as a nation in having sent human beings to Mars and back, versus the pride I would rather feel in having made substantial strides in reducing the ravages of cancer and the terrors for people who have Alzheimer's, providing decent healthcare for all Americans, rebuilding our deteriorating roads and bridges, and constructing a first class rail network. When I compare these to the largely psychological benefits of sending people to Mars and back, I do not understand the argument for the latter.

Obviously I have no objections in principle to sending human beings to Mars, and I recognize that there is some scientific benefit from it. But the main reason to send people to Mars -- attested to by most of the scientists with whom I have spoken -- is simply to show that we can do it as a matter of national achievement, and what we will learn will mostly be how to do what we are doing. That is, sending people to live on Mars is not likely to produce the benefits for those living on Earth anything like what we can do by health research, cleaning the air, providing a safer environment, etc. 

The overwhelming majority of scientists I have spoken to have told me they believe that space exploration will be less productive from the standpoint of improving our knowledge of the universe and yielding benefits that will have tangible impact here at home, if we direct substantial amounts to human space travel.

I do not argue that America will never be wealthy enough to support human travel to Mars without significantly diminishing other important things we should be achieving. I am very skeptical that any time in the foreseeable future will see us with a political will sufficient to raise the resources to do so.

No comments: