Why this sudden red planet chic? Travel to Mars makes an incredibly zoomy topic for nonbinding speeches, so it’s attractive to administration officials looking to sound high-tech, or desiring an oratorical diversion from intractable terranean problems. Any suggestion of a major new space push delights the big aerospace contractors, who constitute a prime Republican constituency. A Mars flight also engages the enthusiasm of a small but significant segment of the voting public. If only it weren’t such a silly notion.

Expeditions to Mars are going to occur someday; I am reasonably optimistic that one will occur during my lifetime. But then, according to mortality tables, I should live till the year 2029. In the decade or two to come, sending people to Mars will be romantic but ridiculously impractical. In his new book, Mars Beckons: The Mysteries, the Challenges, and the Expectations of Our Next Great Adventure in Space, John Noble Wilford, an accomplished science writer for The New York Times, does an excellent job of spelling out the alluring aspects to a potential red-planet mission: the scientific enticements of the objective, the likely drama of the transit, Mars’s place as a beacon for human aspirations. As a sales pitch, it’s a fine book. Intellectually, however, Mars Beckons is shallow and slothful. Wilford basically skips one of the central questions of Mars exploration proposals–why people should go when robot spacecraft could accomplish all immediate scientific objectives for a fraction of the expense or risk. And on the key reality-check issue, money, Mars Beckons is silent. This 194-page volume has but a single paragraph on the question of cost.

Consider that the basic price tag for the space station has grown from $ 8 billion to $ 32 billion in the past five years, even though the size of the facility has shrunk. What does this suggest about what the true cost of Mars exploration might be?

Thirty-two billion dollars for the space station will buy a few modules strung together just 250 miles from their launch paid: with no main engines, no landing or ascent craft, and no crossing of new technological frontiers such as closed-cycle life support, since supply ships will arrive regularly. A Mars mission would require ships equal to dozens of space-station modules: self-propelled and self-sustaining, able to travel not 250 miles but 48 million miles and back over a period of two to three years.

Mars-bound ships will require much more radiation shielding than do spacecraft in Earth orbit, and probably simulated gravity, as so far there are no known palliatives for the muscle loss, bone resorption and extreme productivity drop-off Soviet cosmonauts have experienced in stays of about a year aboard the Russian Mir orbital laboratory. The expedition would require such complexities as a fully equipped surgical theater (if, say, an eight-person crew is gone for three years, statistically, someone’s going to require an operation). A highly advanced degree of safety redundancy would be advisable–probably, as with Columbus’s three-ship convoy, a complete extra vessel–because, unlike the space station, the Mars convoy would be far beyond the reach of emergency assistance. Landers much larger and more powerful than those of the Apollo mission would be required for the ride to the Martian surface. In short, a Mars fleet would make the $ 32 billion space station–which no one in the Bush administration knows how to fund–seem like a Mattel toy.

(Note to fans of dubious space station justifications: Not only does the design now include an unmanned “free flying” platform next to the station, where scientific experiments can be isolated from the disruptive effects of astronauts shaking the structure with their movements, but NASA is furiously trying to engineer robots that would handle much of the “spacewalk” assembly and repair work. So just what is the space station crew going to do? Monitor telemetry from the platform and the robots, which could, with current technology, be done as easily from Dan Quayle’s living room.)

Fuel-launching costs alone guarantee that a Mars mission will be exceedingly expensive. Since it’s not going anywhere, the space station will require only incidental supplies of rocket fuel. A 1988 report by the former astronaut Sally Ride estimates that an austere mission to Mars–employing one cargo ship and one crew ship (no survival redundancy)–would require 2.2 million pounds of propellants at departure from low-Earth orbit. Ride didn’t assess what that means, and neither does Wilford. The current space shuttle true payload cost to low-Earth orbit is in the neighborhood of $ 7,000 per pound. At that price it would cost about $ 15 billion–more than NASA’s current annual budget–just to launch the fuel for a single, stripped-down Mars mission.

From a technical standpoint, the principal barriers to Mars travel are the same today as they were when the Apollo moon program ended nearly 20 years ago. Two major technical breakthroughs are required.

One breakthrough would be a dramatic reduction in the cost of putting pounds into low-Earth orbit, where a Mars-bound craft would be assembled. As long as NASA clings to its insistence that the excessively expensive and dangerous shuttle is the answer to all space-launching questions, grand ambitions like Mars landings or Moon colonies will remain fiscal pipe dreams. As is, shuttle prices are so high that NASA is having trouble getting planetary probes and communication satellites in orbit, objects with a tiny fraction of the weight necessary for serious manned space flight.

There are alternatives to high shuttle prices, but NASA for institutional reasons resists them. The current-technology alternative would be a system or relatively low technology, expendable, “big dumb boosters” for launching cargo, combined with a “spaceplane” similar to a small shuttle, air-launched from a carrier aircraft like a 747, for moving people to orbit.

Many scientists have suggested the U.S. switch from the shuttle to such vehicles, and NASA has always growled. With hardware like this the vast majority of launches would be unmanned, whereas with the shuttle a crew goes along for every routine relay satellite launch, engaging huge cost and risk but ensuring a continued flow of appropriations to NASA’s existing hierarchy of contractors and manned-flight centers.

The second breakthrough requirement for a practical Mars mission is a propulsion source other than standard chemical rockets, so that either the fuel volume required at departure from orbit is dramatically cut back or the Mars transit time is reduced, alleviating the need to carry huge caches of supplies and diminishing the psychological and physical strains that will attend spending years in zero gravity and very close confinement.

The leading current-technology candidate for a new propulsion source is the nuclear rocket engine, which was researched but never flight-tested for the Apollo program. Nuclear engines require far less fuel mass than chemical rockets, and can fire for much longer periods, which means more speed. Operating beyond low-Earth orbit where the natural background radiation from solar and cosmic rays is already at a fatal level, nuclear-powered Mars craff would pose no threat to the environment. Nuclear engines might be the answer for practical interplanetary craft, but not even National Space Council buffs seem willing to try to explain this to the public, for fear of the “n” word. Since the reactor core of a nuclear rocket would produce current rather than thrust, references are usually disguised with the euphemism “electric propulsion.”

(Another note: though nuclear-propelled spacecraft could attain higher speeds than possible with conventional chemical rocket engines, they would take days or weeks to accelerate, making such propulsion of limited interest to military engineers. Knowing that nuclear rocket power would have mainly civilian applications, the Air Force is already doing general research into propulsion from antimatter, especially antiprotons. Probably the words “antimatter drive” will sound incredibly neat-o to the very people who would go bananas at the thought of nuclear propulsion. Antimatter drives could, however, have military applications, as Air Force interest attests.

Preliminary speculation is that mid-21st century antimatter technology may enable the construction of machines moving at about 1 percent the speed of light–nowhere near fast enough for exploration of the closest star but plenty fast for military operations among this solar system’s planets or dogfights in orbit.)

Oh yes, NASA also protests that fundamental space program changes, like a switch to big dumb boosters for cargo and small spaceplanes for people, would require a multibillion dollar R&D investment. This is unquestionably true. But once that investment was made, such systems would enable annual space operating costs to decline. Somehow NASA considers development of cost-cutting launch systems a wildly unreasonable use of taxpayer money, yet it is perfectly happy to talk about a Mars landing–whose full price some NASA internal documents now put at $ 500 billion.

Prices like that (about three years’ worth of the current federal deficit) reflect the daunting nature of any serious Mars expedition and show cultural change in the way NASA and its suppliers do business. During the Moon push, NASA was a progressive, can-do agency, more interested in results than in “process” and bureaucratic preservation. NASA contractors reflected this progressive attitude: unbilled overtime rather than cost-plus foot-dragging was the rule. NASA and its suppliers during the Moon days stood for the kind of government program people could believe in.

Today, the mind-set of the defense-industrial complex has taken over. NASA managers care less about how many months or millions anything takes than about preserving budgets and staff levels. Aerospace contractors in turn mirror their client’s attitude, devoting more creative energy to lobbying and turf protection than technical innovation. The contractors feel that as long as the space program remains locked in whellspin they might as well run up the bill, and from their standpoint there is a certain sad logic to this analysis. In the past two years NASA’s budget has risen 36.6 percent, but practically all the money has gone to cost increases in existing programs, not new projects.

Since cost, practicality, and NASA bureaucratic coagulation–not the niftiness of space travel, which everybody’s already convinced of–are the subjects on which light must be shed before Mars flight can become any more than a rhetorical goal, Wilford might have turned his considerable skills as a reporter toward these. Instead, Mars Beckons harps on noncontroversial gee-whiz. This is a vestige of the old journalistic traditional in which science reporters view themselves as popularizers and cheerleaders for more funding, discreetly averting their eyes from science politics and related issues their sources would rather everyone be too dazzled to address.

Traditionally, science reporters have been little more adventurous than fashion writers: faithfully advancing whatever line the big people in the field are selling that year, never oh never raising the dreaded question of whether something is worth the cost. Or perhaps the better analogy is to education writers, who sometimes view themselves as spokesmen for the fraternity on which they report. My colleague Timothy Noah once found himself at an education conference where journalists on various panels consistently referred to the education establishment as “we.” Traditional science writing has much the same tenor.

Wilford evinces what comes off as unquestioning old-style boosterism in a silly chapter titled “The Russians Are Going,” which counsels that if we don’t rush to the fourth planet the other guys will. This chapter isn’t an argument for a joint U.S.-U.S.S.R. Mars effort, which could be a great idea. (A less-than-5 percent annual subtraction from each country’s defense budget could finance a joint effort, advancing high-tech aerospace research without the emphasis on death technology. A joint mission’s principal rewards would be not scientific knowledge, attainable much more cheaply with automated probes, but international goodwill and common cause.) It’s 1950s illogic updated.

At no point does Wilford pause to explain how the Soviets, with an economic output less than half ours, could afford something we can’t. Nor does he deal with little complications such as that Russian cosmonauts never left low-Earth orbit or that the U.S.S.R.’s most sophisticated space system, the shuttle Buran, has been launched a grand total of once, while low-tech Soviet expendable rockets fly about 90 times a year, because the Soviets can’t afford to operate a shuttle. Wilford naively accepts at face value all claims that the Soviets will soon have men on Mars, despite the fact that the last two Russian robot probes fired in that direction failed. (He does argue later for a joint mission, but only after this scare-tactic segment.)

Traditional science writers are handicapped by the belief that editors want just two kinds of stories from the tech desk, ones about amazing, astonishing marvels or stunning, shocking outrages. This belief is understandable, as most big-media editors reward writers who produce copy fitting either of the two descriptions. Stories about the interplay among science, business, and politics, which seems to me one of the richest subject areas for the 1990s, traditionally have been discouraged.

Oddly enough, Wilford’s own paper has been in the forefront of the effort to break down the old distinctions. Science articles that make page one of The New York Times, where mentioning politics is expected, often are superior to those in the Times’s science section. In most regards, the Times now covers science better than any newspaper in the country; post-Challenger, Times editors have been pressing writers to tell the real story, not the boosterism line. If only Wilford had written with his own paper’s new standards, Mars Beckons might have been more than a passable book.

Gregg Easterbrook

Gregg Easterbrook has published three novels and eight nonfiction books, mostly recently It’s Better Than It Looks: Reasons for Optimism in an Age of Fear. He was an editor at the Washington Monthly from 1979 to 1981.