Ben Boychuk and Pia Lopez

Head to Head: Should U.S. privatize human flights to the moon – and beyond?

Published: Thursday, Aug. 30, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 15A

THE ISSUE: Astronaut Neil Armstrong, 82, died Saturday. His "giant leap for mankind" on July 20, 1969, ensures his place in history as the first of only 12 men ever to walk the surface of the moon. But Armstrong's death raises the question of whether we will ever send astronauts to Mars, or even repeat the feat of landing on the moon.

Should U.S. privatize human flights to the moon – and beyond?

Ben Boychuk: Yes

I'd like to think an American will walk the surface of the moon again in my lifetime. And how great would it be to see the stars-and-stripes planted in the red sands of Mars?

But it's impossible to imagine President Obama or a President Romney making space exploration a priority in the next few years, let alone in the next decade. Not with a $16 trillion national debt and a multi-trillion-dollar entitlement crisis looming.

It's bad enough that U.S. tax dollars pay for new hospitals and roads in Afghanistan while our domestic infrastructure crumbles. Neglecting domestic priorities to spend billions on far-flung flights would be folly.

Moon-landing astronaut Neil Armstrong criticized the Obama administration for shelving plans to return to the moon and relying instead on private enterprise. In 2010 congressional testimony, he argued that only an adequately funded National Aeronautics and Space Administration could do the job right.

But NASA's day is done. After the Challenger and Columbia space shuttle disasters, the agency succumbed to a culture of risk-aversion, political correctness and bureaucratic bloat.

Author Ray Bradbury – another great American we lost this year – shared Armstrong's conviction that the United States should return to space. "Where, oh where," he wrote in 2004, "is the technological madman to wake us from our slumbers and provide us with the proper destiny?"

That same year, remember, President George W. Bush proposed a new manned mission to the moon by 2015, followed by a trip to Mars as early as 2020. But the estimated costs ran into the hundreds of billions of dollars. And that was before the economy fell to pieces.

Turns out, Bradbury's "technological madman" exists. He's toiling far from Washington, D.C. And he's not just one man. Entrepreneurs like Tesla Motors co-founder Elon Musk, Microsoft's Paul Allen, Amazon's Jeff Bezos and Virgin's Richard Branson are pouring their fortunes into the next generation of space travel. They believe they can reach low-Earth orbit, the moon, and beyond at a fraction of what the government would spend. Some of them imagine a manned mission to Mars for $5 billion. We'll see.

Meantime, at least 30 companies are competing for Google's Lunar X Prize. The first group to land a robot on the lunar surface, have it travel at least 1,650 feet, and successfully transmit data and pictures back to Earth will win $20 million.

But the Lunar X Prize isn't really about the money; $30 million represents a fraction of what investors will spend to win. It's about the prestige. And it's about opening a new frontier for American innovation – again.

Despite our troubles, the American desire to "slip the surly bonds of earth" is unabated. Private enterprise will get us there.

Ben Boychuk is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute's City Journal. (www.city-journal.org/california)

Pia Lopez: No

Ben's dismissal of NASA is stunning. "NASA's day is done," he writes.

This comes after the amazing 36-week journey of NASA's Curiosity rover to Mars, setting the foundation for human expeditions. Next steps should be marshaling NASA resources for human flights beyond low-Earth orbit – to near-Earth asteroids, then to Martian moons.

Let's be real; no private corporation or group of individuals has the vast resources for a sustained program of human space travel beyond Earth's orbit, beyond the Earth-moon system and into the solar system.

When its orbit is closest to Earth, Mars is 35 million miles away. The moon is 240,000 miles away. Low-Earth orbit, which no human spaceflight has left since 1972, is 240 miles away.

The private sector certainly plays a role in routinizing low-Earth orbit flights, such as delivering cargo to the space station, as Elon Musk's SpaceX did in May.

But a step-by-step program for a human flight to Mars? Only a handful of governments have the resources for that.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the National Aeronautics and Space Act on July 29, 1958, creating a civilian agency for peaceful and scientific exploration of space.

The aim of NASA's first one-man spaceflights, as Time magazine put it, was "to test for the first time whether a human can be shot beyond the atmosphere to orbit the Earth from 125 miles up at 18,000 m.p.h. and return to tell about it."

We take that for granted today, but it took stepwise progress to get there. The first flight by Alan Shepard on May 5, 1961, lasted only 15 minutes and 22 seconds, reaching 116.5 miles above the Earth.

Two weeks later President John Kennedy announced an ambitious goal, "before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth."

At the time no American had even orbited the Earth. Yet, with exciting milestones and tragedies in between, the first moon landing came on July 20, 1969.

Now, with the end of the 30-year space shuttle program in May, a craft that could travel from Earth to orbit and back – and the International Space Station 240 miles above Earth as a base for operations and laboratory for long-duration space living – we can aim higher.

As President Barack Obama said in 2010: "By the mid-2030s, I believe we can send humans to orbit Mars and return them safely to Earth. And a landing on Mars will follow." NASA hopes to send astronauts to an asteroid by 2025, then to Martian moons.

At the height of the moon-landing effort, NASA got 5 percent of the federal budget; today it's less than one-half of 1 percent. Is exploration of our solar system worth the cost? If we remain an ambitious people seeking the unknown and aspiring to world leadership, yes.

Pia Lopez is an editorial writer at The Bee.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.



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