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Cheney on the Moon

BY ALEXANDER ZAITCHIK
02.04.2004 | POLITICS

I'm the only person I know who is genuinely excited about another manned mission to the moon. I regret missing the last one, and believe we have to get back up there before the Chinese plunge a red flag into U.S. lunar gravel. But mostly I think it would give national morale a much-needed boost. Imagine: Americans huddled around screens of mooncam footage showing each member of the Bush administration climbing dramatically down the landing ladder. Then, sparking joy in the hearts of millions of patriotic Americans, the 16 space suits simultaneously malfunction, creating puffs of hanging space plasma where a president and his heroic cabinet once stood. Although it is tragic that Dick Cheney would be unlikely to survive blast-off, a project as grand and noble as space exploration requires national sacrifice, as another president once reminded us.

It is hard to overstate the backwardness of Bush's plan, announced last month, to send a man back to the moon and beyond for the purpose of drilling. In the postmillennial parlor game of identifying irony's murder weapon, the federal subsidy of cosmic resource extraction must be considered a strong, if late entry, contender. Every serious scientist on Earth is telling us, reminding us, that our civilization will not survive the 21st century unless we quickly develop alternatives to fossil fuels, and the president steps up to promise that something--a new and better Tang formula, perhaps--will come out of a new multibillion-dollar effort to dig up the surface of Mars. In confronting mankind's greatest challenge, Bush might as well have announced a crash program to send Scott Baio back in time to re-fight the Battle of the Alamo.

While a majority of Americans oppose throwing more money at Mars--most would prefer the Sci-Fi channel plus health insurance--it's no secret that among the biggest boosters for drilling the red planet is our ashen, aortically challenged vice president, Dick Cheney, who spearheaded the new space plan in the White House. In an April 2000 article in Oil & Gas Journal--the in-flight magazine of Air Force One--Cheney's old Halliburton colleague Steve Streich crisply explained the logic.

"NASA's Mars exploration program...warrants the support of both government and industry leaders," Streich wrote. "One area of great importance is finding out of what the inside of Mars consists. That's where the petroleum industry comes in."

Streich goes on to discuss the "great potential for a happy synergy between space researchers [and] the oil and gas industry." (Happy emphasis added.) According to Streich, "the oil industry is in need of a revolutionary drilling technique that allows quicker and more economical access to reserves...[A Mars mission] presents an unprecedented opportunity [to] improv[e] our abilities to support oil and gas demands on Earth." Less unprecedented are the U.S. tax dollars that will socialize the research.

Toward this end, Halliburton in 2000 joined a consortium of industry and academia to lobby for the Mars project. Success came quick. A February 2001 report in Petroleum News discusses the ways in which Halliburton, along with Shell and the Los Alamos National Laboratory, had already begun working with NASA "to identify drilling technologies that might work on Mars." Future spin-offs from this publicly funded research may include new tools for "high-technical geothermal drilling...[and] a melting tool...to sterilize the hole on the way down, which would help with the problem of contamination issues."

One small step for man, one giant windfall for Bush oil cronies...

The space program has never been about the Star Trek rhetoric in presidential speeches. Even Kennedy's Great Frontier was more about missile and satellite development than the human spirit or America's Cold War ego. But Bush's transparent stab at "Grand Project" rhetoric is all the more enraging given the wartime urgency for a new Apollo program down here on Earth. The scientific consensus about climate change has solidified further since Bush took office, and the prognosis has notably worsened. Unless renewable energy technologies capable of driving the global economy appear within the next two generations, the accumulation of greenhouse gasses will push the atmosphere beyond the point of return. The latest respected scientist to add his tocsin to this chorus of doom is Caltech professor David Goodstein, a man not known for alarmism. In Out of Gas: All You Need to Know About the End of the Age of Oil, out next month on W.W. Norton, Goodstein flatly concludes, "Civilization will come to an end sometime in this century unless we can find a way to live without fossil fuels."

It's not that the administration is unaware of the mounting and increasingly desperate calls for alternative energy. In the blackest detail of Bush's space plan, the Washington Post reports that administration officials have actually spoken of their hope that astronauts will find traces of water on the moon that can be converted to hydrogen fuel to propel spacecraft through the solar system. The same administration that gleefully slashed funds for research into renewables in the last budget is now peddling visions of hydrogen-powered drilling on Pluto and solar-powered U.S. military bases on the moon.

Meanwhile, back on planet Earth, as Bush practiced his NASA speech in R2-D2 Underoos, yet another redundant report on climate change was published in the journal Nature, this time linking climate change to the heat waves that struck Europe last summer, killing 20,000 people--or six World Trade Centers, depending on your politics. That same week, the U.N. announced work on a study examining the impact climate change and falling grain production will have on interstate tensions in the 21st century, including those between nuclear powers. More happy synergy.

Such reports will never dent the Bush administration's thinking because such reports are not read within it. The Oval Office could be 200 feet under water and Dick Cheney would be communicating to the president in basic sign language with an oxygen tank on his back about the need to open up the ANWR.

But if climate change doesn't scare this administration, the rapidly approaching End of Oil does. Within the next two decades, world oil production will peak, beginning a decline as rapid as last century's ascent. Last week's NASA speech, like the Iraq war, reveals the administration's idiotic strategy for dealing with this looming crisis. They will simply build a U.S.S. Industry to penetrate the heavens, then use the spin-offs to dig deeper under other people's deserts and our own national parks and wildlife refuges. Anything but admit that the game is up.

But the game is up, and we can only push the next president, and push hard, to speak this truth frankly and get to work. Goodstein, again:

The real challenge... we would set for ourselves if we had courageous, visionary leadership [is] to kick the fossil fuel habit altogether as soon as possible. John F. Kennedy challenged us to put a human being on the moon within a decade...That was possible because we already knew the basic principles of how it could be done. There were formidable technological obstacles to overcome, but we are very good at overcoming that kind of obstacle when we put our minds to it. The energy problem is of exactly that nature.

Instead, Halliburton and Boeing are sending us back out to space. Happy countdown.

Originally published in New York Press.

About the Author
Alexander Zaitchik co-founded Freezerbox in 1998. He has reported from more than a dozen countries for publications such as the International Herald Tribune, Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Wired, the San Francisco Chronicle, The Believer, and many others. He lives in New York City.
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