The Washington Post Column

Re: ‘Mission To Nowhere’

“Dear Ms. Applebaum,
The most desolate, lonely place that I can think of is not Mars, but the inside of your brain.”

Anyone who has ever written an article and had it printed in a public place will know how much e-mail has changed the way that readers communicate with authors. A decade ago, a controversial article might spark three or four letters, of which one would contain obscenities written in green ink. Nowadays you can count on several hundred e-mail missives, of which perhaps half will be literate and thoughtful and the rest will contain insults of the kind that people generally write only to strangers.

“I hope you are stuck here on earth when our environment is destroyed by accidental war, pollution, microbes, or a wayward meteor and have nowhere else to go.”

Although I’ve grown used to this phenomenon, I was nevertheless completely unprepared for the passions sparked by a column I wrote last week [“Mission to Nowhere,” Jan. 7]. I meant to point out, in a mild sort of way, that human space travel might not be absolutely necessary, that it might cost more money than we can afford at the moment, that robots do most of the work better, and that the notion of humans living on Mars might be pretty far-fetched.

“As for the bone-chilling temperatures: Warmth is a relative term. Or is it your view that the Earth is the norm for the entire universe?”

In fact, the e-mail onslaught ran about 60-40 in my favor. Many of the positive missives came from scientists, even ex-NASA scientists, and ran along the lines of “thank God someone has said the emperor has no clothes.” But the negative ones were remarkable both for the level of anger and for the fact that most contained no rational arguments whatsoever. Instead, they cited the “religious awe” that space travel inspires, or the “human quest to explore and discover,” or even, somewhat inappropriately, the 19th-century notion of “manifest destiny.” The best most could do was to cite the (undisputed) scientific achievements of the space program, albeit failing to note that none, with the possible exception of freeze-dried ice cream, had much to do with the presence of humans in space. Indeed, we might well have achieved more, visited more planets, and created something even more amazing than microprocessors if we had focused all of that tremendous talent — and all of that money — on sending probes to more distant destinations, or even, say, on unraveling the genetic code far earlier.

“Mars DOES have air. Okay, so we can’t breathe it. . . .”

The point is that different people are inspired by different scientific riddles: the secrets of the atom, the mysteries of the brain, the intricacies of human psychology. But — judging from my e-mail — space travel fanatics arrogantly assume that their dream, and their vision of what humans should explore, is somehow morally and intellectually superior. And for four decades, they’ve had vast quantities of taxpayers’ money, political ideology — we started all of this to prove that we were better than the Russians, remember? — and an enormous bureaucracy supporting their particular fantasy. A few days after my column appeared, the White House declared that the president intends to launch yet another space program. This is a classic example of the way this particular brand of science is always used: to bolster a political campaign, or to inspire patriotism, or to support a particular vision of us, as a nation. Not that this is uniquely American. The Soviet cult of space persists to this day, and the Chinese are now building one as well.

But at the end of the day, none of this religious awe has sufficed to sustain a long-term program. The Apollo missions were halted because there wasn’t anything to do on the moon and the public grew bored. The space shuttle, as a Brookings Institution budgetary study reports this week, was conceived as a cheap way of sending humans on as many as 60 missions a year. The cost and complexity of keeping people on board alive quickly led to a radical downscaling of the program to an annual average of five missions, and even those had limited scientific capability. And until the Challenger crash — let’s be honest here — the public had lost interest in the space shuttle as well.

I don’t doubt that a new Mars mission or a new moon mission — or whatever the president decides to announce — will end the same way. But if the president’s goal is to tap into the vast well of unfocused religiosity out there, and the righteous anger of people who have grown accustomed to seeing their personal dreams backed with government funding, he may well, I now realize, be on to something.

“Are space missions risky? Yes. So? So’s walking down the street.”

So’s opening your e-mail.