That space is a political frontier is something of a sore subject for a lot of us. Many of us who love science aren’t thrilled with the idea of tying it to the political process, and so we tend to plug our ears anytime anyone tells us that our projects are political.
But, as they say, those who can’t fight with swords can still die by them, and the political process is no different. And for something like space exploration, it’s probably more true than for many other forms of scientific inquiry.
That our space endeavors were tied to the Soviets, and that the Moon shot was incited by JFK’s brilliant rhetoric are well known by space aficionados (and even, I would argue, the general public). But many of the other political machinations that formed the current arena of space are much less well known.
The Apollo program is one such example. Its cancellation on the surface seems simple: we made it, and the Soviets didn’t, so we thereby “won” the Space Race and didn’t need to continue the program. However the pivot was much more intentional, and much more banal than that. While it’s true that the rationale was detente with the Soviets over the Space Race, the reason why we were seeking a detente in that area was largely because we had escalated other areas. Namely, we had moved from a support role in Vietnam to a full combat role by the time we landed on the Moon. By the time Nixon rolled in to town, the civil rights movement had made mincemeat of the American trust in government (not helped by the FBI’s role in fomenting conflict within the various movements), and the hippie movement was in full swing undermining the rest.
Add to this that Nixon was a politician first, second, third, etc. and a visionary not at all. Many of the U.S. societal woes can be traced to Nixon’s ruinous domestic policies.
And so Apollo, along with all of the US manned planetary exploration budget, got the axe in favor of a program to spy on the Russians (which you and I know as the Space Shuttle). Now, it’s well known that the Shuttle was used to do other things too. But the ability to launch spy satellites with manned crews to deploy them was something that scared the Russians.
And so Apollo was scrapped in favor of Skylab and the Shuttle. Not because we couldn’t afford both, but because they were things that could be sold as “progress” to the American people, while allowing for the slashing of NASA’s manned budget.
This leads to the other part that isn’t well understood by the general public. The cancellation of Apollo wasn’t just the scrapping of the Saturn V and it’s future derivatives. It was the scrapping of all development on manned rockets that weren’t the Space Shuttle. NERVA, the Saturn I (which is what they used to ferry astronauts to Skylab). All frozen. It wasn’t just a cutting of manned spaceflight. It was a gutting. If our enemies had wanted to prevent us from ever sending human being beyond orbit again, they couldn’t have done a much better job than we did to ourselves.
The point of this is not to say that space shouldn’t be political, or to say that the Planetary Society needs to spend billions on propaganda (sorry, “Public Relations”), but rather to encourage the scientific community to examine its own motives for various projects.
Fast forward to today. Elon Musk has announced his vision for a Mars transport vehicle. NASA’s got a handful of rovers and such rolling around on the surface. Meanwhile, NASA hasn’t sent a mission to Venus in almost thirty years. Why?
The standard response is that Venus is a “hellscape” and that Mars is “more promising.” But is that actually what the data tells us, or is that just something that has woven its way into our collective American consciousness?
For that answer, I’m going to draw on another non-space example: Antarctica. The US and the Soviets both built research stations deep on the Antactic continent. The US made their station on the geographic south pole. One would expect the Soviets to be close by, not ceding anything to the Americans, but their station is 800 miles away. That’s not even within a day’s drive on highways, let alone across the frozen wasteland that is Antarctica. So why did they choose something so far off?
The answer illustrates beautifully why diversity of perspective is something that can be extremely valuable to science. While it’s not very near the South Pole, the Russian site is significant. Why? Because it, not the South Pole, is the coldest place on Earth. Because even though the South Pole has a very high elevation (9000ft), the Russian site is 200ft higher (11000ft). Just for reference, even in a normal context, 11000ft is enough to induce altitude sickness. Add to this that it is also one of the driest places on Earth, and bar none the coldest, it makes the site much less pleasant (which, in Antarctic terms, is saying something).
The point is, this kind of disparity of thought continued through the eighties as the Russians were having financial troubles. They didn’t have to “sell” their projects to the people in the same way that the US did. State media could project most anything as exciting and successful.
And so, after a few unsuccessful attempts at Mars, and a few successful ones at Venus, the two powers diverged in their planetary aspirations. The US took the one with the more romantic history (think of all the books that were published with Martians before we ever landed a single probe there), while the Russians took the one that was cheaper.
In the time since then, the Soviet Union collapsed and the data that had been shared stopped coming. By then we had had so much success on Mars that there was no reason to give consideration to anything else.
But for the non-Americans, Venus is a much more obvious choice. With budgets that make NASAs look absolutely Titanic, cost is a much larger consideration. Moreover, the atmospheric research on Venus is much more scientifically relevant than Martian geology. And finally, neither JAXA nor the ESA has the romantic history that NASA and the American people do with Mars.
I would argue that this is to their credit. The American obsession with Mars has made us myopic to the possibilities of Venus, and led to NASA funding everything but Venus missions to keep the American public from getting distracted from their main goal: Mars.
This is in part problematic because the technology readiness level for manned Mars missions is very low. Venus, OTOH can be done with nothing more than a glorified Apollo mission. The time scales are much smaller (even though the delta V is similar), which makes the shielding and provisions requirements much more reasonable. It also means the turnaround and cost per mission is much more palatable. A two year manned Mars mission is pretty long to keep the public’s interest. Nine months, OTOH, is much more reasonable. It’s much easier to keep people’s attention for one season of a show than two and a half or three, and as we’ve seen, the ROI on public interest is very much an important part of American space exploration.
So, in summary, I’d like to see an ideological pivot to Venus (though not away from Mars), bringing the closest planet to us back into the fold. The reason it wasn’t there in the first place is not scientific, but historical and political, as evidenced by the interest of those with different histories and politics in it. And even though Mars is like FTL: forever ingrained in the American imagination, it’s also like FTL in another way: a pipe dream. Even if we melted the Martian ice caps, and imported a “real” atmosphere for it, Mars will never be another Earth. Its distance from the Sun, its
mass (~1/9th Earth’s) and consequent 1/3 Earth gravity, and its lack of active geology mean that no matter what we do, Mars will always be second-rate. If for no other reason, this makes Venus worth a second look.