Political Scene

Grand Plan for Another World
David Applegate

In the September 1997 issue of Geotimes, I wrote a column about the successful deployment of the Mars Pathfinder mission and its Sojourner rover. I had two purposes in writing that column: to point out the geologic nature of Pathfinder's mission (it was after all a roving geochemist) and also point out that Pathfinder had seriously challenged the conventional wisdom that manned missions are necessary to generate public support for the space program. Pathfinder set the record for the busiest Web site ever, with 150 million hits in the five days following its landing.

Well, here we go again. Like many people, I opened the paper on the day after Christmas to read the news of Spirit's successful landing and have since been transfixed by its embarkation onto martian soil. The news from Mars is all geology, and the same tremendous public interest that surrounded Pathfinder is there again. For the geosciences, we have our teachable moment: the opportunity to translate public interest into public understanding. The joy of discovery — the wonder factor — in our science is readily apparent. But we need to say: If you like our work abroad, you should see what we're cooking up back home, where geoscientists are performing exciting science you can use every day.

But what of the second point in that earlier column? Spirit's success would appear to be further proof that unmanned missions can generate public interest in the space program. And indeed President Bush took advantage of the good news surrounding Spirit to announce a major new space mission for NASA. To make budgetary room for this new mission, NASA will retire the shuttle fleet by 2010 when construction is complete on a scaled-back International Space Station. Will those savings fund a new fleet of robotic probes and telescopes to greatly expand our knowledge of our planetary neighbors and the universe beyond? No, the new mission is to return humans to the Moon as a stepping stone to human exploration of Mars.

Footing the bill

Entering an election year, the president is seeking to look as presidential as possible, and generating grand plans for the future — plans that would of course be facilitated by his re-election — is a great way to do that. The president is also taking care of some unfinished family business. On July 24, 1989, President George H.W. Bush used the occasion of the 20th anniversary of Neil Armstrong's footsteps on the Moon to call for establishing a permanent lunar base and sending astronauts to Mars. That proposal quickly sank under the weight of its half-trillion dollar cost — a fate not lost on the new President Bush. In his proposal, the shuttle savings and modest (5 percent) annual increases above NASA's current $15.5 billion budget are supposed to cover much of the estimated $170 billion price tag, which is spread out over the next 16 years.

The cost would also be covered by foregoing future servicing missions for the Hubble Space Telescope and from unspecified "refocusing" within the Space Science account that funds unmanned missions like Spirit. The eventual impact on NASA's robotic explorers remains to be seen. Even less clear is what the new initiative could mean for the other scientific missions within NASA, such as the constellation of satellites, funded by the Earth Science account, that look back at our own planet.

The House Science Committee's newly appointed ranking Democrat, Rep. Bart Gordon (Tenn.), praised the president for issuing "clear marching orders," but expressed concern "that NASA's other missions not be cannibalized in an attempt to cover the costs of these proposals." The earth and space science accounts must not bear the brunt of soaring costs in the manned flight accounts, as has happened with the shuttle and space station.

The potential impacts on science extend beyond NASA to the other science agency funded in the same appropriation bill: the National Science Foundation. None of this is to say that the president should not dream big. Indeed, many geoscientists will rally around the prospect of this return to human exploration of space. But the scien tific community must consider the implications and pay attention to the impacts.

Here at home

As we look to the heavens, we cannot forget our responsibility down here on Earth aboard our own precious but at times tumultuous spacecraft. On the front page of the Dec. 26 Washington Post, the story about the robot geologists had to share space with news of the tremendous destruction wrought by an earthquake on the city of Bam in southeastern Iran. Away from plate boundaries and less seismically active than other parts of the country, this ancient stop on the Silk Road was leveled by a moderate quake. As many as 40,000 lives may have been lost, and 90 percent of the city's residences — made from traditional mud construction unable to withstand prolonged shaking — have been rendered uninhabitable. More than half were simply destroyed along with most of the major civic buildings.

A few days before, an almost identically sized quake struck the area around San Simeon on the central coast of California. A historic clock tower collapsed in the town of Paso Robles, killing two people. The contrast in vulnerability could not have been more stark — population density, building construction, emergency preparedness and response.

The two front-page headlines illustrate the tremendous promise the geosciences hold, both for wonder in capturing the imagination of future explorers and for improving people's lives here at home. Perhaps the excitement of the one can encourage our brightest students to consider the geosciences, and, having done so, perhaps they will contribute their knowledge and understanding to tackling the tragedies that confound a future day.

The geosciences have a great deal to offer, both in wonder and in practical benefits. We owe it to ourselves to pursue a course that allows both to thrive.
Applegate is AGI's Director of Government Affairs and editor of Geotimes. In mid-February, he leaves AGI to take the position of Senior Science Advisor for Earthquake and Geologic Hazards at the U.S. Geological Survey.

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