Jonathan Russ (05/05/04)
This week's class consisted primarily of a discussion of President George Bush's Mars Exploration initiative. We considered the motivations and feasibility of his plan in light of Bush's other initiatives while in office, and what emerged was not particularly kind to Bush or his Mars plan. One could argue that the Bush administration has a history of creating policy with an eye to elections and public opinion, not to what is actually good for America.
An example that was discussed in class that is somewhat analogous to the Mars initiative is Bush's “No Child Left Behind” act. This education plan increased schools' “accountability” and required them to set higher standards in specific areas. What resulted was a cut in many school programs in order to fund those necessary to meet “No Child Left Behind.” Furthermore, the program was underfunded by the federal government.
If this example is applied to the Mars initiative, what appears is a picture that is not very rosy for the future of NASA. Firstly, many scientific programs are being cut to make way for human exploration missions; to set NASA on such a narrow path restricts its development in many areas. The more diverse a program is, the more options there are for the future of the program; this initiative only offers one future, and no view beyond the immediate goal of reaching and exploring Mars. Secondly, there is simply no money available. The federal government is running extremely large deficits; one can spend money one does not have only for so long. We have a massive military operation in Iraq, Social Security is in trouble, and millions of Americans do not have healthcare—and we are still in deficit spending. It is practically impossible at the moment to increase NASA's budget.This program looks as if it is more of an election grab than anything else. Bush would love to unite the nation just as he was able to after 9/11 and just as Kennedy did in the early 1960s. But perhaps he and his administration do believe that the program can work. I spoke to author and actor Ben Stein on Tuesday night; Stein was a speechwriter for President Richard Nixon and has met President Bush and campaign head Karl Rove multiple times. He told me that while Rove has less of an influence on Bush's administration than is popularly believed, Rove does have an influence; furthermore, he is “optimistic.” If the Mars initiative was a Rove program, perhaps he has simply not thought it through enough to see that given the current state of affairs in America, it is doomed to fail from lack of funds and that its refocusing of NASA would be a tragedy for the great scientific work that is being done there now.