January 13, 2004

Mars: What's $600 billion between friends?

This week President George W Bush will announce his plans to ramp up the space program and put a man on Mars. As Garfield the Cat continually laments, "It's amazing the things people would rather have than money."

When the first president Bush announced similar delusions of grandeur, the cost was about 400 billion dollars (now worth about 600 billion). Our president's initial suggestion has been a mere $750 million dollars a year, to be increased later. It's not at all clear how much it will cost to put a man on Mars, but it will be more than that. As Gregg Easterbrook noted in a recent piece, the rover now on Mars, which cost $410 million, is "the size of a refrigerator, and does not come back," while Bush now wants to send something "the size of an office building, and bring it back."

Welcome to the concept of "opportunity cost." Every dollar spent going to the moon is a dollar not spent elsewhere. And what's 600 billion dollars between friends? Enough to buy a top-of-the-line dell laptop and years of wireless Internet access for every man, woman, and child in the country. That money could also give a million kids a free, full-price Ivy League education every year for forever. The money even equals the gross domestic product of Argentina or Australia (with over $100 billion to spare).

"But wait," the Mars mission supporters counter, "space travel has had many benefits." Sure, some benefits have come from space travelĀ—scientific research that might not have been discovered any other way. But the trip to Mars alone yields none of that. At best, it's an excuse to spend money developing the kinds of things NASA likes to develop. We can have satellites and plastics and all the rest without ever having to plop a building-sized box on a planet 48 million miles away, and then get it to come back.

The biggest benefit that comes from this is the feeling of satisfaction you might feel watching some lucky guy utter a few carefully scripted words in a strange landscape. In a few years, people will speculate that the government faked it all and screened it in Hollywood. And I suppose for some people that feeling of satisfaction is worth a lot, but I suspect that to most people it isn't worth even close to $2,000.

"But wait, again" space cadets say. "This is government spending." If it doesn't go to NASA it will just get wasted someplace elseĀ—on dental care for the underprivileged, on aircraft carriers in Idaho, or on pensions for old people. That's sort of a fair point. The president hasn't yet revealed exactly what programs he intends to axe to help us conquer the red planet.

But the money will have to come from somewhere, and there will have to be a lot of it. If $600 billion of useless government programs are lying around, we should kill them anyway and let people spend their savings. And if there aren't that many useless government programs, then the needless trip will cost people real resources. I don't particularly like most government welfare programs, but I wouldn't want to be the guy forced to explain to a retiree that his social security check was less important than his being a member of the first country to land one of its citizens on Mars.

The entire affair has a vague resemblance to the pyramids of old. A ruler conscripts resources (tax dollars, thankfully, and not slave labor) toward a mostly-useless but very grandiose target to bring glory to the society and fulfill dreams many of us didn't even know we had.

Despite this, I could support a Mars project once we figure out how to get there cheaply. If the cost were in millions rather than billions, even my Libertarian sympathies might cave. But the people who support this sort of pie-in-the-sky folly mostly do so without a care at all on how much we spend on it. That's bad enough when people do it with their own money. When they do it with mine, and yours, it's far worse.

So far as scientific research goes, there are hundreds of more effective places to spend our money (that is, for the government to spend your money). So far as lasting symbols of American greatness go, we could do far better for far less. Think of the immense library we could build with half that budget!

I'd like to see a man on Mars sometime, sure. But the list of things I'd rather see first could stretch from here to, well, a long way off. At the top of that list would be a few hundred billion dollars.