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Rather than spend hundreds of billions of dollars to hurl tons toward Mars using current technology, why not take a decade--or two decades, or however much time is required--researching new launch systems and advanced propulsion? If new launch systems could put weight into orbit affordably, and if advanced propulsion could speed up that long, slow transit to Mars, then the dream of stepping onto the Red Planet might become reality. Mars will still be there when the technology is ready.
Space-exploration proponents deride as lack of vision the mention of technical barriers or the insistence that needs on Earth come first. Not so. The former is rationality, the latter the setting of priorities. If Mars proponents want to raise $600 billion privately and stage their own expedition, more power to them; many of the great expeditions of the past were privately mounted. If Mars proponents expect taxpayers to foot their bill, then they must make their case against the many other competing needs for money. And against the needs for health care, education, poverty reduction, reinforcement of the military and reduction of the federal deficit, the case for vast expenditures to go to Mars using current technology is very weak.
The drive to explore is part of what makes us human, and exploration of the past has led to unexpected glories. Dreams must be tempered by realism, however. For the moment, going to Mars is hopelessly unrealistic.
Easterbrook is a fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of the new book The Progress Paradox (Random House; 376 pages)