You won’t catch me complaining about an actual congressional bill calling for a Mars colony. In a bizarre kind of “budget-hawkery,” Congress submitted (I’m not making this up) a goal for a Martian base with a price tag of between $200 and $500 billion, while scrapping renewable energy and energy efficiency programs that cost less than $1 billion (then taking that savings and handing it over, plus some more, to oil and nuclear interests).
The new NASA budget also seeks to reduce funding for climate change research.
These contortions to the U.S. budget seem like a very expensive and unnecessary tradeoff between responsible stewardship of our current planet versus a visionary exploration of another planet that, frankly, could do with a little of the global warming mojo we’re so practiced at.
It’s not all bad, of course. “Mars Base” has the thrilling sort of ring to it many of us have dreamed of since childhood. It’s one of the big things we like to think of our country aspiring to. Heck. It’s 2013, we should already have bases on Europa by now. But, better late than never.
Before anybody gets too excited, however, keep in mind this is far from a “we choose to go to the Moon” moment. The program would be a “pay-as-you-go” sort of plan which would provide funding in fits and starts as the whim of Congress dictates. And boy, does Congress have whims.
So imagine this: NASA is being asked to scale back or even scrap its other efforts, including climate change and asteroid research, and redirect its activities to an ambitious, admirable goal which may or may not be funded.
Incidentally, that’s similar to the sort of uncertain incentive environment which has held back the renewable energy industry in the U.S. For decades, the Federal Production Tax Credit for renewable energy has come and gone at the whim of Congress, causing an unstable economic environment for U.S. renewable energy companies. It has allowed other nations to surge ahead of the U.S. in renewable energy technology and left the man on the street to scratch his head and wonder why the heck we’re buying our wind turbines from Spain and South Korea.
So, here we go again.
As part of the whole “fiscal cliff” deal, the Production Tax Credit got extended for 2013. And now Congress is trying to scrap it again, casting more uncertainty onto the green economy that employs three percent of folks in my home state, Michigan.
Meanwhile, Congress appears to be setting us up for the same uncertainty in another lofty and admirable national goal: a human presence on Mars. We already know that setting goals without certain federal support is a surefire way to cede national success to other nations. As long as Congress continues to do business with wishy-washy national backing, we’re going to fall behind on all the great accomplishments.
In this congressional environment, it’s no wonder the President is seeking out measures to combat important issues like climate change that do not require effective congressional action.