To Mars and beyond? Get real

Published 12:00 am Thursday, January 29, 2004

Here's a quick quiz for you.

Who said the following: "To infinity, and beyond!"

A. Buzz Lightyear

B. George W. Bush, referring to humanity's exploration of space

C. George W. Bush, referring to the budget for the exploration of space

Stop, you're all right.

I'm just as enthralled with the idea of surfing the solar winds to other galaxies as the next hard core Trekkie. I love the idea of discovering planets with telepathic dragons, Golden Fuzzies, and mind-controlling salt vampires. Okay, maybe not the salt vampires, but you get my drift. Now that we have found all the chartered lands of earth, it is only in our nature to cast our acquisitive eyes upon the heavens. But at what cost?

I could get philosophical and moral here, and start yammering on about the higher costs to our souls by leaving Mother Earth, about forsaking religion for science, and so on, but when I say the costs, that's exactly what I mean - the bread-and-butter, what's-coming-out-of-my-paycheck-next costs.

According to one source, the president's plan to send a manned mission to Mars could cost about $1 trillion dollars. I'd write that out, but it is beyond my comprehension.

Some of the other numbers I've discovered while researching the topic are more within my grasp. Like - the cost of the Spirit robot-thingy now prowling around the Red Planet. It cost $420 million dollars. I can translate that easily - that's winning the Publisher's Clearinghouse 42 times. That's $419 million more than I'd like to have in my bank account. Okay, that's $1 million more than I'd really, really like to have in my bank account.

That's the cost of building about 300 schools, or buying 4 million textbooks for our school children.

I think the government is going about this the wrong way. With $420 million, surely we can give a good enough education to enough children that we are going to find an Einstein or two, or three hundred, in the ghetto or the sticks, where they are currently using 10-year old textbooks and overpaid, over-worked (and therefor uninspired) teachers. Then, with their government-funded education, these Einsteins can give that education back to the government by discovering ways to create a Mars lander the size of a refrigerator - for the cost of a refrigerator. I can't help but think $420 million is a lot of money for a fancy remote control dune buggy.

I have a better idea than spending $1 trillion to send people to Mars. Turn the project over to a for-profit organization. Let Stephen Spielberg or Bill Gates take it on - that's just pocket change for those guys, and they've probably got the software technology already.

I do have to disagree with those who say the everyday person doesn't benefit from the Space Program. The cars rolling off the assembly lines these days have a hundred times (at least) more computing power than the Apollo missions had - not that that's necessarily a benefit. But our computer technology definitely owes a great deal to NASA and Co. Just think, if it weren't for the billions and billions (thank you, Carl Sagan) we've spent on leaving this atmosphere, I'd have to play solitaire with a 99 cent deck of cards instead of on a $500 PC.