Mars Looks Like Nevada

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I wish I could share the excitement the scientists obviously feel about the pictures from Mars, but they just look like Nevada to me. If they ever get air conditioning on Mars, maybe somebody will open a casino there.

Actually, it’s a great technical accomplishment, but the key question is, of what benefit is it to people on Earth? Perhaps we have gone from art for art’s sake to science for science’s sake and there are no public benefits at all.

I don’t believe in public subsidies for artists, and I don’t believe in public subsidies for interplanetary geology or spaceflight as a hobby. Of course, I don’t believe in public subsidies for professional sports, either, which more or less puts me outside the mainstream.

Still, we have not reached the point where we can confidently say that no child in America is hungry or malnourished, that all children receive a fine education, have plenty of opportunities for jobs when they grow up and will not end up in a human dump if they get sick or injured. We have certainly not reached the point where we can say that we are properly conserving the resources of our own planet. Until that day is reached, every public dollar spent must answer these questions: What are the benefits, and who receives them?

If you look at the state of government finances, from the federal to the local levels, you can easily understand we’re not talking about "surplus" funds here. There are no surplus funds anywhere. Even a large flock of crows couldn’t drown out the squawks for more money one hears from practically all public officials.

So why are we blowing hundreds of millions of dollars on a few pictures of Mars? Every time a space shuttle is lost (an inevitable consequence of spaceflight, no matter what we do), NASA spends about a year "reforming" itself. Well, what it really needs to do is some hard thinking about its purpose. Everything NASA does must have identifiable public benefits, or there is no justification for its existence. Providing entertainment to the public is not one of its purposes.

We can all see the benefits of satellites. They have revolutionized communications and navigation. They even play a key role in targeting weapons. But what are the benefits of the space station? Certainly the long-running Soviet space station did not keep that country out of bankruptcy. Shuttle flights are half-a-million dollars at least per trip, and they need to yield more public benefits than watching spiders spin webs in space or growing a tomato plant. High-school experiments can be done on the ground much more cheaply.

There is no source of public funds at any level except our wallets. I’ve been trying to get this message across, unsuccessfully, for years, but nevertheless, every penny spent by government at any level comes from people’s income and property. The taxes include those erroneously called "fees" on a telephone bill today that are more than the telephone bill used to be as a whole. The trillions of dollars spent by governments are the trillions that people no longer can spend on their own and their family’s welfare.

Therefore, every single American has a vested interest in the spending of every public dollar, and it’s time the people who pay the bills start demanding accountability. We need government, but we need to make sure it doesn’t waste our money. Maybe money comes easy to you, but I’ve been working since I was 11 years old. I don’t want my money to prop up a ballet company that, on its own, would go bankrupt, or to send a fancy camera to Mars so we can learn what we already know — that it’s a desolate planet. I darn sure don’t want my money sent overseas to rebuild somebody else’s country.

Like most people, I have a certain amount of curiosity about Mars and the other planets, but not $400 million worth. The scientists will no doubt have a jolly time looking at the Martian desert and studying its rocks, but it seems to me that the public will get zero benefits from the project.

Charley Reese has been a journalist for 49 years, reporting on everything from sports to politics. From 1969—71, he worked as a campaign staffer for gubernatorial, senatorial and congressional races in several states. He was an editor, assistant to the publisher, and columnist for the Orlando Sentinel from 1971 to 2001. He now writes a syndicated column which is carried on Reese served two years active duty in the U.S. Army as a tank gunner.

© 2004 by King Features Syndicate, Inc.

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