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Mars or bust

By Keith D. Cummings
web posted January 19, 2004

A section of the first colour images of the Martian soil that were taken by the Mars Exploration Rover Spirit: Will man ever walk here?
A section of the first colour images of the Martian soil that were taken by the Mars Exploration Rover Spirit: Will man ever walk here?

Last week, President Bush announced his latest initiative, a plan to return the United States to the moon within 4 years, to return humans to the moon by 2020 and to finally take Americans to Mars by the middle of this century. The President believes that the United States should lead the charge to establishing a permanent settlement on our nearest celestial neighbor, and many space fans are applauding the new initiatives.

Glenn Beck, on his nationally syndicated radio program, praised the President for bold vision and large ideas. Unlike the eight remaining Democrats running for office, Beck points out that Bush is showing the commitment to large, bold projects that can inspire and encourage Americans to do great things. In light of the President’s claim that the projects would only cost an additional $1 billion over the next decade, it’s easy to see how so many have embraced this grand idea.

It’s highly unlikely, in view of the number of stars in the universe, that we humans are the only intelligent species anywhere. It’s also unlikely, unless the brilliant physicists are all wrong, that anyone else lives close enough to the Earth that we can possibly hope to meet them in our inter-planetary travels. Assuming current thinking is correct, that travel at speeds faster than light isn’t possible, our nearest stellar neighbor is four light years away. We can’t expect space travel to bring us close relationships with other intelligent life forms, no matter how much we would like it to.

Finding other life forms, other civilizations around the universe is hardly the only, or even the compelling reason for space exploration. As I have argued on radio, there are resources on neighboring planets and moons that will be invaluable for human life. From water on Jupiter’s moon Europa to minerals below the surface of the moon and asteroids, space exploration has much to offer humans. Improvements in our quality of life undoubtedly await us as we reach for the planets, if not the stars.

However, one must ask if the government is the best way to achieve these ends. Should the thousands or millions of Americans who oppose space exploration be forced to help foot the bill simply because a majority is ready to force the issue. I have argued against city and state funding of sports arenas for the majority of sports fans in the past. Space exploration is the same thing, in a different form. Using public funding for a project in which not all of the public has an interest is a misuse of capital and power.

Many will argue, if not the federal government, an organization with vast resources, to whom can we look for these bold moves? Who will push the envelope of human achievement if not the President and NASA?

In 1607, a group of intrepid explorers and investors took a chance on a new venture. The Virginia Company of London was formed by merchants and adventurers to explore the New World for riches and spread the word of Christ to the pagans living on the newly discovered continent. The Dutch East India Company, which was formed in 1602 under the charter of the Dutch government, helped settle the colony of New Amsterdam on the island of Manhattan in 1625.

Both of these commercial ventures were formed with the approval, even the protection, of the respective national governments wherein the companies were formed. Both were given charters, protecting the companies by giving them exclusivity to profit in their ventures. Neither received large financial benefit. Both provide an example of how space exploration could be done.

There are men and women of means and vision in the United States today. Should the President choose he could take a different course, encouraging the Warren Buffets and Bill Gates of America to create a type of American Lunar Exploration Company. This privately operated and privately funded venture could enable men and women in the United States who support such a project, to invest. The investment could then be repaid through the profits of the corporation, just as investment in Berkshire Hathaway and Microsoft has benefited the visionaries who purchased shares when those organizations were young.

There is little doubt that men and women will walk again on the moon. While it may not occur in my lifetime, I am confident that Mars will someday also support a colony of some form or another. Who knows, the day may come when the colonists on the moon or Mars break free and declare themselves independent in the same way their American ancestors did more than 200 years ago. Regardless of what happens, the best way to make it happen is to make it easier for private individuals and private organizations who support the goal to pay for it, and to keep the federal government out of the process.

Keith D. Cummings is the author of Opening Bell, a political / financial thriller. His website is http://www.keith-cummings.com.

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