by J Scott Christianson, Columbia Daily Tribune Columnist

When I was a teenager, one of my few acts of organization was a scrapbook containing every news clipping I could find on the space shuttle and NASA’s space program. To me, the development of the space shuttle was the next step toward a future in which I could purchase a ticket to the moon, Mars or the next galaxy; all places that while cold and desolate were much more interesting than my eighth-grade classroom.

During the early ’80s, many others were likewise enthused about a reusable space vehicle and continuing U.S. leadership in manned space travel. While early unmanned missions such as the Voyager and Pioneer space probes and the Viking probe to Mars were successful, they were limited in their abilities. It seemed clear any real space science would require lifting real scientists off the ground, and the space shuttle seemed to be the perfect machine for manned space travel.

Now, 28 years after the first space shuttle took off, NASA officials are in the process of retiring the remaining shuttles and replacing them with two more conventionally designed rockets, the Ares I and Ares V. NASA has more ambitious plans for these rockets, however, than just replacing the shuttle’s orbital hauling capabilities. Namely, it plans to return humans to the surface of the moon, establish a base there and then use it to launch a manned mission to Mars — an extremely expensive, dangerous and misguided plan given the challenges currently facing our planet.

A manned mission to Mars will cost tens of billions of dollars. According to a recent report, NASA immediately needs an extra $3 billion per year to keep its plans on track. It is almost guaranteed the costs for this project will expand greatly. Costs cannot be correctly estimated for large projects so unique and untried. And a major risk associated with a manned Mars mission is that, after sinking billions into this project, Congress or a future administration will pull the plug because of cost overruns and delays.

This is exactly what happened to the superconducting super collider project in Texas, which Congress canceled after its estimated costs at completion ballooned from $4 billion to $12 billion. Political and public support of such large science projects wanes quickly as time and costs increase. By pouring the majority of their efforts into this one mission, NASA is betting on the success — and continued funding — of a manned mission to Mars.

The known risks for human space flight on this scale are huge and have to be mitigated with a variety of not-yet-invented technologies. And in any such complex project, all the risks can’t be known. The space shuttles have surely proved that — two of them were destroyed by an “O” ring and a piece of foam. Mars is not days away like the moon; it is months away, with lots of time for things to go horribly wrong.

A manned mission to Mars will tie up most of NASA’s intellectual resources for a decade or more as they toil on an incredibly expensive project whose success and scientific value is uncertain. The American public should have a better chance of receiving a decent return on its investment in NASA.

Perhaps the most compelling argument for not proceeding with a manned mission to Mars is NASA’s great success with unmanned missions to Mars and other planets. These “smaller, cheaper, faster” space probes have been extremely useful and cost-effective and have proved themselves capable of performing real science or, at the very least, capable of being the on-the-ground technicians for scientists safely located on Earth.

A better use of NASA’s budget for exploration and planetary science would be to fund several smaller unmanned missions to explore Mars and other planets, thus spreading out both the risks and the rewards. While some of these are bound to fail, most of these little probes would be successful, and several would be successful beyond their original design. The Spirit and Opportunity probes continue to operate on Mars some five years past their original mission of 90 days. Even Voyager 1, launched in 1977, is still operating some 30 years later. Investing in several smaller missions with clear scientific goals offers much more reward for the risk.

If NASA is to receive more appropriations, it should be for investigating problems here on Earth. Studying global warming is an unprecedented opportunity to learn about a sophisticated planetary processes happening right here, right now. Moreover, we need NASA to not just document the effects of global warming and other environmental problems but provide us with possible solutions and new technologies addressing these challenges. Solving the problem of global warming would be a greater step for mankind than any trip to space and is much more deserving of public investments.

Landing humans on Mars and bringing them back safely would be a great technological feat and no doubt resplendent with numerous spinoff technologies, but it is not one of the major technical problems currently facing the human race. A manned mission to Mars will happen someday, but we should concentrate our scientific resources on figuring out how to leave future generations with a habitable Earth and leave it to them to discover how to make it to Mars.