On Tuesday evening, October 23 (U.S. time), NASA's 2001 Mars Odyssey orbiting spacecraft will enter into orbit around Mars. From its orbit, during the next two and a half Earth years, it will make a global map of the Martian surface.
Whatever the success of this mission, the brilliant work of scientists, engineers, astronauts, and businessmen in recent decades has made human exploration and settlement of Mars a serious possibility in the current generation. Many experts agree that the main challenge in getting a man to Mars is no longer technological but rather political: how to persuade the government to spend the $50 billion dollars (by NASA's estimate) needed for the project.
Politicians are asking, "Should we go to Mars?" That is the wrong question. The right questions are "Should I go to Mars?" "Should I invest in or work for the exploration and settlement of Mars?" These are questions each individual, not government or "society," must ask and answer for himself.
The government has no right to spend its citizens' money on Mars exploration unless it is for military defense of lives and property. Every American has a right to invest his money--his property--in projects of his own choosing.
In 1989 NASA asked for $450 billion to complete a manned mission to Mars. If that expenditure had been approved, a half trillion dollars would have been robbed from private investors. Many innovative computer, telecommunications, and Internet companies that have fueled our economy would not even exist today.
By 1999 NASA had cut its estimated cost of a manned Mars mission from $450 billion to $50 billion. One man whose technical ideas are largely responsible for this dramatic reduction is Robert Zubrin, an aerospace engineer in private industry. Dr. Zubrin has estimated that if the mission were done by more-efficient private industry, it would cost only about $5 billion. Other businessmen estimate that a private mission to Mars could probably be financed by raising $10 billion in revenue just from the sale of broadcast rights and advertising and promotion. But if the first Mars mission turns out to be a government one, marketing revenues for a private mission will disappear, because the public is not so interested in something that is second.
Rather than spend taxpayer money on Mars exploration, the government should provide something far more valuable: recognition and protection of property rights.
Consider the U.S. government's recognition and protection of intellectual property in the computer industry. Inventors of computer hardware were able to patent their inventions, and the government realized that creators of software also had the right to copyright their software. If the government had not protected these property rights, the computer revolution would not have occurred.
The government's protection of rights is now needed in space. The U.S. government must recognize that private individuals who explore extraterrestrial land--the Moon, Mars, asteroids, etc.--endow that land with value where there had been none; and those individuals have a moral right to claim and use that land as their private property. They have the right to decide what to do with Mars, just as you have the right to use, sell, or develop your home or property.
A private mission to Mars would cost taxpayers nothing. Only those who expected to profit in some way, financially or otherwise, would invest their money and time. If their investments failed, only they would suffer. If they succeeded, the riches of Martian real estate, tourism, advertising, scientific experiments, and mining would be theirs.
Is it worth going to Mars? Let each individual decide for himself. The government's only role should be to protect property rights. Recognition of that role is the breakthrough needed by the heroic pioneers who say, "I should go to Mars."
Ron Pisaturo is a senior writer for the Ayn Rand Institute in Irvine, Calif. Mr. Pisaturo has written on Mars-related issues for The Intellectual Activist. The Institute promotes the philosophy of Ayn Rand, author of Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead.