Status Report

MarsNow 1.7 – Hostages to Politics

By SpaceRef Editor
August 29, 2001
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Robert Zubrin’s recently-released novel, First Landing, inadvertently makes a powerful case against a near-term NASA mission to Mars. The policy implications of his scenario couldn’t be clearer: a governmental Mars mission will, from development through crew return, be hostage to the shifting whims of the American electorate, the media and interest-group politics. To any follower of the nearly 20-year odyssey of the space station from Reagan’s speech to the recent 3-crewmember scaleback., this will hardly come as a surprise. Yet some have held the faith that a Mars program will somehow be exempt from the laws of money, politics and human nature. First Landing shows us, through a harrowing application of those laws, just how any government-dependent Mars mission will be a hostage to politics.

First Landing’s premise is that the discovery of microbial life on Mars by the first crew touches off a mass hysteria, with talk-show demagogues fueling existing fears of biotechnology and epidemics, leading to Seattle-style riots at JSC. A craven Administration bows to the protesters and tries to strand the crew, to prevent a feared back contamination of Earth. The JSC riot scene struck a nerve, as I read it the week of yet another anti-globalization, anti-biotech riot. Zubrin’s scenario is a distinctly possible one: there are plenty of scaremongers in the planetary science and environmentalist communities, as well as the usual run of media opportunist, ready to tap into the fears built up from AIDS, cloning, GMOs and the like. Given the media attention that these groups would receive on the discovery of Martian life, a genuine mass hysteria is not at all impossible.

Yet street riots are merely the far end of a spectrum of problems that are inevitable for a project dependent wholly, or mostly, upon the government. Government support is inherently capricious, and the expense of continuously ensuring that support increases the costs of any project severalfold, at least. This capriciousness is fundamental to the operations of any democratic government that can direct the expenditures of large sums of money. As Freidrich Hayek put it in Law, Legislation and Liberty, v.3: The Political Order of a Free People, p.99:

It simply cannot confine itself to serving the agreed views of the majority of the electorate. It will be forced to bring together and keep together a majority by satisfying the demands of a multitude of special interests, each of which will consent to the special benefits granted to other groups only at the price of their own special interests being equally considered.

This means that for any project to succeed, constant payoffs to other interests are required. These payoffs can take the form of unrelated expenditures, like the shocking level of funding in the NASA budget for local science centers, planetariums and the like in key congressional districts, or they may be built into the project cost directly, through contract prices that bear no relation to market prices (the classic $700 toilet seat), or through dispersing production nationwide to maximize political support rather than production efficiency. Thus, any project must command enough political support not only to pay for its actual costs, but the costs of constant bribes to every interest group equally or more powerful. Bear in mind that political funding, unlike market funding, is a zero-sum game: given some limits on increases to the national debt, money for any project can only come out of the funding of others. So some sort of payoff to compensate the politicians who might lose the support of the less-favored projects is necessary.

Should the project fail to maintain enough support in attracting budgetary funds and in neutralizing other special interests, it likely won’t be cancelled outright, as that would end whatever patronage and influence that the project still had, upsetting its remaining supporters. Rather, it will be allowed to strangle itself on those very inefficiencies mandated by the political process. There are countless examples of this in military procurement. One classic case is the B-1 bomber. Built for a Cold War mission, the development of stealth technology and end of the Cold War rendered it obsolete on deployment. Its supporters failed in acquiring and maintaining the funds necessary to refit it for actual operational missions (which continued to be undertaken by the 30 year older B-52). Rather than being cancelled – as it did have enough support to dodge that bullet – it was built in numbers too small to be useful operationally, but enough to ensure that some money went to its contractors. The few planes were split up among three bases – militarily pointless, but providing much-prized Air National Guard jobs in key districts.

The ISS has followed a very similar path. Its rationale has changed several times since its initiation as Space Station Freedom in the Reagan Administration. Its political purpose (as opposed to scientific or technological justification) was to ensure a flow of taxpayer money into NASA and out to politically important contractors, without becoming a lightning rod for public opposition. In failing to maintain sufficient political support, it has been reduced to a crew of three: unable to do the research that was its scientific justification, but perfectly able to maintain its own existence for its own sake. In that respect, it has been the perfect government project: freely spending money to provide jobs and benefits, serving no end but patronage itself, and virtually invisible to potential critics.

This is one of the reasons why NASA has never had a humans-to-Mars program: it could incite the sort of opposition that Zubrin describes. Vocal opposition, which need not come from great numbers of critics, just voluble ones (witness the several dozen protesters who almost brought down NASA’s Cassini mission), means that the gravy train will need a much stronger engine than that required for business-as-usual projects like roads, bridges or the ISS. Absent overriding Cold War concerns of security or prestige, the strictly political costs of going to Mars will always outweigh the strictly political benefits. To Congress, projects are only important to the extent that they provide political benefits by paying off or pleasing special interests. Extrinsic, non-political, values are not their job. Congress must be indifferent to other values: its job is the dispensing of monetary benefits to special interests and not anything else. It is in the business of politics, and only political concerns will figure. If the political benefits do not outweigh the political costs, it will not be supported by Congress.

I have long maintained that an Apollo-style Mars program is impossible, as the political math simply cannot add up to a positive answer. No high-profile, expensive governmental project with a potential for vocal opposition has succeeded since the era of Apollo and Vietnam, and none will. Americans have become too sophisticated about politics since the Kennedy-Johnson days when there was still some moral authority outside the horse-trading process on which politicians could call.. Should by some fluke a Mars program would actually come into being and survive the political process long enough to launch a mission, it would find itself the victim of the ghastly political viciousness Zubrin describes. In later columns I’ll look at the current opposition to Mars sample return and human missions, but for now we’ll just say that that opposition does exist, and many of its advocates would have no qualms in stranding or killing a crew over even the most tenuous justifications for fears of back contamination.

There are only two solutions to the political dilemma. One is to wish for a change in the political math. This could happen by a return to deference to political leadership, a return to respect for elected officials. That is a cornerstone of the Zubrin argument: the next (always the next) President could reclaim Kennedy’s heroic mantle by boldly declaring, etc. Unfortunately, the only way to become an elected official is to be better than anyone else at the game of taking campaign money in return for patronage favors (and we as an electorate know that), it is unlikely that politicians will be reclaiming moral authority any time soon. Besides, unearned deference to leaders is hardly a characteristic that should be encouraged in a democracy, if we want to remain one. The political math could also be changed either by ensuring very powerful support or removing all significant opposition. Nobody expects the latter in this increasingly risk-averse and technophobic society. The former is perhaps not impossible, and that is the change that supporters of a governmental Mars mission rest their hopes on. Proselytizing politicians and the public about the virtues of a Mars mission certainly cannot hurt. At the very least, the materials and skills developed can be put to use by the sort of Mars effort that will have a greater chance of success.

The other solution, of course, is to not make use of political math at all. The math of economic development, of the Spacefaring Web, is not zero-sum. We can, as I pointed out last week, have books without taking money away from movies, or achieve that governmental impossibility, buying both guns and butter. No controversial governmental program, from the Vietnam War to the Clinton health care initiative, has succeeded in a generation. In that same time, scores of new industries have arisen, new technologies (including the space-related ones of remote sensing, GPS and cell phones) have been invented and popularized. At the very crudest level of argument, economic development works, and governmental command has not. The fantasy of First Landing is that a governmental Mars program could get so far, not that its political enemies would be so ruthless and effective.

Mars Now is a weekly column © 2001 by John Carter McKnight, Mars Program Director for the Space Frontier Foundation. Views
expressed here are strictly the author’s and do not necessarily represent Foundation policy.

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SpaceRef staff editor.