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The Imperial Martian Wardrobe

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The Spacefaring Web 4.02
by John Carter McKnight
Scottsdale - Feb 11, 2004
Disappearing clothing seems to be in the news these days. From Janet Jackson's bustier to the Emperor's space-policy clothes, more seems to be less and less all the time.

Two small items on a space news list reveal the opposite extremes of today's space togs: While the Association of Mars Explorers just announced its biennial dinner featuring Penny Boston on exploring Martian caves (spacesuit optional), in an American Association for the Advancement of Science online poll, 76% of respondents voted against any spending on President Bush's space initiative. In effect, they're not buying the Emperor's new space-policy fashion line.

The inescapable conclusion? There are people ready and willing to head to Mars, but they will not be doing it on the taxpayer's dime.

The will to believe otherwise is a powerful force. By believing otherwise, we step into a fairyland of possibility. In this fairyland, our society is still steeped in dynamism, driven by a sense of greatness, looking toward a horizon more distant in time and space than the next paycheck or the quarterly numbers. In this fairyland, solidarity and comradeship are still words with meaning, as people unite in support of great enterprises. In this fairyland, real leadership abounds, and delivers, by inspiring followers. In this fairyland, the emperor isn't naked, his courtiers aren't obsequious influence-peddling lackeys, and perhaps words can be taken at face value.

In this fairyland, America is going to Mars.

Back here, we're staying put.

Since late last summer, when the Bush space policy trial balloon first took to the skies, space advocates looked up from two perspectives: outright delusional, or enabling. The delusional - largely the usual suspects, but including a few hopeful souls who, to paraphrase the X-Files slogan, desperately wanted to believe - joined in an elaborate preview of the emperor's new clothes, all going on about how much more fashionable this new line would be than the admittedly slightly, um, translucent nature of George I's space wardrobe, the peekaboo Space Exploration Initiative of 1989.

Most of the punditocracy, too wise to really believe, generated terabytes of commentary, all in the form of "assuming imperial sartorial splendor…" and then going on to examine nuances of fashion - would we see the Moon-Mars style, or the racy Mars Direct couture? Would hemlines be up, for a hard-and-fast deadline, or demurely floor-length, for an incremental approach?

All the commentary and analysis served, directly or indirectly, to support the fully delusional in their embrace of the space-policy fairyland wardrobe.

But the fact is, the emperor isn't decked out in a real plan for taking America out into the Solar System. The ermine robes of a human mission to Mars can be clearly seen as the gossamer of good intentions and miscued campaign rhetoric, by anyone with the capacity to be honest about what's before their eyes.

So what can we do about the delusional friends in our midst?

Any psychiatrist would say that recovery has to begin with an honest acceptance that there's a problem. We have to perform an intervention on our space wardrobe hallucinators. We commentators have to stop encouraging them by pretending to take their notions seriously. We have to say, repeatedly until it gets heard: The United States isn't sending people to Mars. Period.

Everybody got that? Can we go on?

Abandoning delusion, however, doesn't force the abandonment of hope. But that hope must be grounded in reality.

We're not going to convince "the public." We're not going to change the temper of the times, which is timid, myopic, enervated. There will be no renaissance before we succeed, though our success in reaching and settling Mars will spark one in time.

We're going to get to Mars, but we're going to do it despite the public, despite the political leadership, despite the scientific Brahmins.

We're going to get to Mars. But we're going to get there by doing our work and paying our way.

We'll get there when our friends at the rocket companies succeed in getting launch costs down. Not before then.

We'll get there when exploration can take advantage of off-the-shelf technologies, just as exploration has usually done in the past. We'll get there when the universal answer to "should we go to Mars?" isn't "why?' but "why not?"

Here's how hope can stay grounded in reality and still soar to Mars.

No, the American public isn't willing to back billions for Mars. Neither is the mainstream scientific community. But there are a lot of people who want to see a mission, in this generation. Many of them have wealth, many more have skills. Some of them have devoted their lives to doing the work, incremental, often unglamorous, even unheralded, that is essential to putting people on Mars.

Some of them are the Association of Mars Explorers: not the Association of Taxpayer Chiselers, or the Association of Liars About Spinoffs, or the Association Living in Camelot Fairyland. No, the Association of Mars Explorers, the people doing the real work today.

Some of them are the entrepreneurial rocket companies and the X Prize contestants. They're putting in their own cash, their own sweat, to struggle against skepticism, red tape and all the woes of startup companies, to take people beyond the atmosphere without taking money from anyone who doesn't want to go.

Some of them work at NASA and Big Aerospace - but not on the executive floors. They're using their access and influence to get good work done at the margins, to incrementally advance our understanding and ability while still keeping food on their tables. Their work is bringing us closer to Mars as well.

What they all have in common is an unwillingness to support the delusion that somebody else will do the job for us. They know the emperor is naked, but they don't care, because the emperor isn't a mission-critical element. They themselves are clothed, though - in analog spacesuits, in field gear, in shop-floor coveralls, even in the occasional suit and tie. Clothed for the real work that needs to be done.

They'll get themselves to Mars, and they'll enable the rest of us who want to go. But they won't enable the dreamers who think that American taxpayers will do the job for them.

The Spacefaring Web is a biweekly column © 2004 by John Carter McKnight, an Advocate of the Space Frontier Foundation Views expressed herein are strictly the author's and do not necessarily represent Foundation policy. Contact the author at Related Links
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Is Space Exploration Worth the Cost?
Timisoara - Jan 19, 2004
The new space policy of the Bush administration, aimed at taking the humankind back to the Moon and on to Mars, came under fire before even being released. In their bid at the Democratic nomination for the White House, several politicians criticized George W. Bush's grand space plans, arguing that the money would find a better use here, on Earth writes Virgiliu Pop.

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