MADISON, Wis. — I'm a good government geek. I retain a childhood faith that government done well — even if it's big — is better than no government at all, and even better than small government run by nitwits.
This belief sets me at odds with America's current small government cult, whose patron saint is the inimitable Grover Norquist, who believes that government is best when it is sufficiently small enough to drown in the bathtub. To adherents of the Norquist doctrine, I like to highlight a few governments like the one in Zimbabwe — so small that it consists of just one (insane) guy, Robert Mugabe. Likewise, Venezuela recently found itself governmentless after the government's only functioning member, Hugo Chavez, died.
And if sheer smallness is your cup of bubble bath, I recommend immigration to Somalia, a Wild West themepark full of gunslingers and buccaneers, which for the past decade has not had government enough to fit into a soap dish — much less a bathtub. It deserves to be renamed Norquistan.
Big governments, big accomplishments
By contrast, it has always been the biggest governments that have accomplished real big things for lots of people. The United States, for example, has 320 million-odd people, more wealth than any nation in history, and — for better or worse — the biggest government ever, anywhere. Norquist notwithstanding, US government is going to stay humongous — which means, rather than pretending to shrink and wither, it should get back to doing the sort of big things it's designed to do.
Red Planet dreams
For example, the latest word in aerospace is this Dutch tycoon, Bas Landsdorp, who wants to fund a private expedition to Mars by staging it as a reality-TV series starring a whole bunch of Survivor-style triathletes and steroid-abusers, with comic relief provided by the odd Snooki and maybe a Kardashian or two. Lansdorp estimates that his eight-year extravaganza would get off the ground for $6 billion, mostly covered by broadcast rights and star-struck advertisers. He expects — get this! — to make money.
Lansdorp's apparent theory is that the buying public, whose attention span now stands at 140 characters (including commas and hyphens), is going to stay interested in a 400-week science project — the last part of which might well be broadcast in low-res B&W.
Lansdorp's most recent precedent for sucking eyeballs into outer space is NASA's space shuttle program, which was canceled for lack of interest after 30 years and only got prime-time coverage when all the passengers got killed. It never, ever, made money.
NASA, bless its bureaucratic heart, made space travel boring. In doing so, it reinforced the best feature of big government. It does huge, complicated jobs that serve hundreds of millions of people so effectively that most customers have no idea who's doing this stuff, and if they watched it for awhile, they'd be bored to tears. Examples: delivering the mail, air traffic control, Medicare.
Which brings us back around to Mars. Regardless of Bas Lansdorp’s harebrained scheme, I think big government — our government, in the person of NASA — should start seriously planning manned (and womanned) Mars flights. For two reasons: First, romance — sci-fi, Star Trek, the wild blue yonder!
Second: freedom. Specifically, freedom from starry-eyed but selfish capitalists like Bas Lansdorp. The privatization of Mars is a dubious prospect. Space exploration should always be a public and national — ideally, an international, global, and vastly collaborative enterprise.
Remember that every NASA program, from Mercury 1 through Endeavor's last landing, required an explosion of technological creativity. Innovations came from government researchers, but also from the private labs and device-makers who won NASA contracts. Whatever its source, every invention born in the space race belonged to the American (or Russian) people who had paid for it.
If and when interplanetary exploration goes private, the next round of space-based inventions — in electronics and medicine, metallurgy and optics, climatology and human psychology — will belong to the corporation who funded the flight and filed the patents. Maybe Bas Lansdorp will share those lucrative discoveries freely, especially those with the potential to save lives or halt climate change.
Or maybe he won't. Or, maybe his fellow space capitalists — Richard Branson, Dennis Tito, Elon Musk, etc. — will claim similar discoveries from their Mars projects. And then, maybe the greatest ideas of the 21st century will languish uselessly for decades while corporate lawyers wage a war of patent-court attrition.
During that worst-case eventuality, one can only hope that NASA regains its mojo, gets to Mars first, and plants another plaque that says it “came in peace, for all mankind.”