We're going to Mars! No, not you and I -- although wouldn't we have fun? -- but the we as in We Came In Peace For All Mankind. Leaving behind the mundane matters of war, terrorism, mad cows and trillion-dollar deficits, Dubya finally makes his speech about returning to the moon and thence on to Mars. It was due last month, on the 100th anniversary of the Wright Brothers first powered flight, but got delayed when someone noticed the Mars landings.
Excited? If there was any chance he meant it, then I'd be excited. But it's an election year and promises cost nothing -- oh, there's an extra billion dollars a year for NASA, but compare that to the billion and a half being spent on promoting the idea of marriage (if you're not one of 'em preverts, of course). It's nothing.
The good space stuff comes from robot exploration: manned stuff is good for politics, which is what fuelled the Apollo mission. Had to get there before the Ruskies, who'd committed the unpardonable sin of being first into space. Nothing else mattered -- not the spin-off technologies, not the experience, most certainly not the science. This time, there's no race: America's won already. The Chinese? Nowhere. The Americans are more worried about us Europeans -- but with the US spending twenty billion on the military use of space against around fifteen on NASA, there's no real competition.
Without that competition people won't go to Mars, no matter what Bush says. However, if you want to be part of a project that is going to get there, though, now's your chance. A group of radio hams have been busy monitoring the Mars Express mission, and are now planning their own Mars orbiter, to pop over to see the neighbours in 2007 or 2009. They've already managed to get four satellites into Earth orbit, and by the joys of Newtonian mechanics that's more than half-way there. Have a look at http://www.amsat-dl.org/p5a/ and see if you fancy being a part of it…