Robert Zubrin is spot on yet again: NASA has become a bureaucratic hulk that has no clear, direct goals [“The Second-best Plan,” Commentary, July 21, page 17]. Technologies are developed and lobbied for by set groups and constituencies; the money is spent on the rationale that they might one day be useful if we ever embrace more ambitious goals.
If my daily life operated as NASA does now, I might browse swap meets and junk yards to buy any car parts that catch my fancy or whose salesman has a good pitch. I would stack these in my garden shed and under a tarp in my backyard and justify them by saying I might want to go on a long-distance road trip someday; I know how to drive but I have no real plans, no destination. If someone pressed me on it, I would say, “Maybe California in a few years,” while I continued to spend most of my money on random bits and pieces. Occasionally I would hire a mechanic to come look at the parts and devise how they might be put together to form a working car, though they don’t fit together quite right and the mechanic says it would take about $100,000 in time and effort to make a working car from them. I don’t have that kind of money, so the plans would be postponed and I would return to accumulating more random odds and ends with the hope that somehow the next time with a few more parts the outcome will be different.
Of course if I were serious about going on a road trip, I might well have rented a car, bought some luggage, made reservations and departed, spending far less money than I had on the hundreds of parts rusting away in my backyard.
If Mars is the goal (and it should be), we should go there directly. It is the most fundamentally important scientifically, and it is the only place in reach that has all the resources and conditions necessary to support life.
Going to Mars today is an order of magnitude less difficult for us technologically than it was for our predecessors to reach the Moon in the 1960s, so the question becomes, do we still have what it takes?