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by Robert Knight

Perhaps alarmed by a national security briefing on the suspected presence of lunar al-Qaeda bases, U.S. President George W. Bush announced, on January 14, 2004, an American-led international mission to establish a base on the moon, en route to an eventual human expedition to Mars at some unspecified future decade.

Bush's announcement drew inevitable comparisons to President John F. Kennedy's September 12, 1962 call for a mission to the moon in which he declared: " We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win."

Bush seemed mindful of his own sense of historical Napsterism in his download of Kennedy's call to space when he uttered his own inspirationally-challenged homage to Kennedy, as embedded in the concluding words of his Jan. 14th space speech: "We choose to explore space because doing so improves our lives, and lifts our national spirit. So let us continue the journey."

Even as Bush spoke, his Vice President Richard Cheney, the former CEO of Halliburton, was simultaneously fulfilling his role as ex officio head of NASA with an inspection visit to the Jet Propulsion Laboratories in California. We have been unable to confirm that he lobbied for a contract for his corporate alma mater to provide rocket fuel at a price double the going rate--as Halliburton had just done with a $60 million contract providing gasoline to U.S. military occupation forces in Iraq.

Nevertheless, the conquest of Mars is no trivial matter.

In fact, the record of 20th century terrestrial attempts to probe the red planet is not exactly stellar. In the Mars missions conducted between 1960 and 2000, Mars has been kicking Earth's butt by a margin of two-to-one, with nearly two dozen failed Martian probes to only a dozen or so successes--a win-loss ratio of 11-22, to be precise.

Let's look at the record, as documented by the National Space and Aeronautics Administration:

Mission Timeline:

Marsnik 1 (Mars 1960A) - 10 October 1960 - Attempted Mars Flyby (Launch Failure)
Marsnik 2 (Mars 1960B) - 14 October 1960 - Attempted Mars Flyby (Launch Failure)

Sputnik 22 - 24 October 1962 - Attempted Mars Flyby
Mars 1 - 1 November 1962 - Mars Flyby (Contact Lost)
Sputnik 24 - 4 November 1962 - Attempted Mars Lander

Mariner 3 - 5 November 1964 - Attempted Mars Flyby
Mariner 4 - 28 November 1964 - Mars Flyby [First successful fly-by]
Zond 2 - 30 November 1964 - Mars Flyby (Contact Lost)

Zond 3 - 18 July 1965 - Lunar Flyby, Mars Test Vehicle

Mariner 6 - 25 February 1969 - Mars Flyby
Mariner 7 - 27 March 1969 - Mars Flyby
Mars 1969A - 27 March 1969 - Attempted Mars Orbiter (Launch Failure)
Mars 1969B - 2 April 1969 - Attempted Mars Orbiter (Launch Failure)

Mariner 8 - 8 May 1971 - Attempted Mars Flyby (Launch Failure)
Cosmos 419 - 10 May 1971 - Attempted Mars Orbiter/Lander
Mars 2 - 19 May 1971 - Mars Orbiter/ Attempted Lander
Mars 3 - 28 May 1971 - Mars Orbiter/ Lander [Soviet, first successful landing.]
Mariner 9 - 30 May 1971 - Mars Orbiter [First successful US landing]

1973 Mars 4 - 21 July 1973 - Mars Flyby (Attempted Mars Orbiter)
Mars 5 - 25 July 1973 - Mars Orbiter
Mars 6 - 5 August 1973 - Mars Lander (Contact Lost)
Mars 7 - 9 August 1973 - Mars Flyby (Attempted Mars Lander)

Viking 1 - 20 August 1975 - Mars Orbiter and Lander
Viking 2 - 9 September 1975 - Mars Orbiter and Lander

Phobos 1 - 7 July 1988 - Attempted Mars Orbiter/Phobos Landers
Phobos 2 - 12 July 1988 - Mars Orbiter/Attempted Phobos Landers

Mars Observer - 25 September 1992 - Attempted Mars Orbiter (Contact Lost)

Mars Global Surveyor - 07 November 1996 - Mars Orbiter
Mars 96 - 16 November 1996 - Attempted Mars Orbiter/Landers
Mars Pathfinder - 04 December 1996 - Mars Lander and Rover

Nozomi (Planet-B) - 3 July 1998 - Mars Orbiter
Mars Climate Orbiter - 11 December 1998 - Attempted Mars Orbiter

Mars Polar Lander - 3 January 1999 - Attempted Mars Lander
Deep Space 2 (DS2) - 3 January 1999 - Attempted Mars Penetrators

Among those missions, one of the more interesting was the early attempted Soviet Mars fly-by, Sputnik 22, in October 1962, at the height of the "Cuban Missile Crisis." The mission failed during transfer from Earth orbit to Mars trajectory, exploding into multiple fragments which alarmed the radars of the US Ballistic Missile Early Warning System radar in Alaska, exacerbating momentary fears that an intercontinental missile attack might be underway. Fortunately, cooler heads and ballistic mathematics prevailed, averting potential terrestrial hostilities.

Since that time, the disintegration of the Soviets has been followed by a pragmatic alliance between the United States and Russia (and its technological center in the Ukraine) for joint space missions. In fact, part of President Bush's announcement implicitly anticipated Russian cooperation in completing the International Space Station as an orbital stepping stone on the way to the moon, and Mars beyond:

"Our first goal is to complete the International Space Station by 2010. We will finish what we have started, we will meet our obligations to our 15 international partners on this project. We will focus our future research aboard the station on the long-term effects of space travel on human biology."

Bush's indirect reference to the essential Russian role in the construction of the ISS, and its necessary role of resupplying the station during the continuing grounding of the Space Shuttle fleet, testifies volumes--despite his optimistic talk of new transportation systems, such as the so-called Crew Exploration Vehicle, "which will be capable of ferrying astronauts and scientists to the Space Station after the shuttle is retired." But future Russian cooperation in space could be jeopardized by terrestrial laws limiting such endeavors. NASA's Russia representative James Newman said almost a year ago that Russian commitments to the Space Station could be jeopardized by the need to find at least $50 million per annum to keep those Soyuz' coming. At issue is the Iran Nonproliferation Act (INA) signed by President Bill Clinton in March 2000, which limits US financing of Russian space efforts "in cash or in kind" until Moscow takes "necessary steps" to prevent the transfer of nuclear technology and missile systems to Iran.

That, in addition to the paltry $1 billion added to a five-year NASA budget (with the remainder for Bush's space vision too come from existing programs), places the Bush administration's Mars ambitions on the same level of feasibility as the wage worker who skips lunch a couple of days with the intention of thereby financing a month-long junket to Monte Carlo. As conceived, Bush's Mars hustle will succeed no better than his more local expedition to Iraq.


Robert Knight is an award-winning journalist and the host of Earthwatch, Wednesdays at midnight on WBAI, 99.5 FM in New York City

Reprinting permissible with attribution.