Mission Earth

George W Bush is reportedly going to use his 'state of the nation' address on January 28 to announce plans to establish a permanently manned base on the moon some time over the next eight to 15 years, but what about the Earth? Jack Conrad takes apart the lunar madness

George W Bush is reportedly going to use his 'state of the nation' address on January 28 to announce plans to establish a permanently manned base on the moon some time over the next eight to 15 years; this is with a view to eventually landing humans on Mars. Survival and endurance techniques and equipment will be tried out and perfected on the moon before the supposedly more testing conditions of Mars. Obviously Bush has an eye on the forthcoming presidential elections and giving himself what the New York Times calls a "legacy-inspiring flavour" (January 10). His Mars mission plays to abiding American myths of an endless frontier and echoes John F Kennedy's May 25 1961 speech. "I believe," Kennedy famously said, "that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before the decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth" (quoted in K Gatland Manned spacecraft London 1967, p141).

Going to Mars will doubtless be hugely expensive. Estimates vary from $50 billion to $250 billion over the course of the whole project (though the free-marketeer, Robert Zubrin, president of the Mars society, reckons he could do it for $30 billion). Even if, as expected, Bush is re-elected, this could sink his 'vision thing'. When, in 1989, his father, George Bush senior, announced his Space Exploration Initiative, which envisaged an American return to the moon, he found himself rebuffed by congress. Nasa's $450 billion projected bill proved far too much.

To ensure that history does not repeat itself Bush junior is determined to keep details vague. It is not hard to fathom why. The present US boom has been funded through a Keynesian-type federal deficit amounting to just under four percent of GDP. The IMF also publicly worries about a ballooning US trade deficit and external debt. In short the US economy is in danger of undergoing a devastating reversal of fortunes. Despite the inevitable criticisms from various Democratic Party presidential hopefuls, Bush is banking on the undiminished popularity of all thing space. Generations of science fiction writers - from HG Wells to Arthur C Clarke and from Ray Bradbury to Ken McLeod - and long-running comic, radio and TV series - from Dan Dare to Dr Who and from Superman to Star Trek - have created a ready audience for Bush's version of bread and circuses.

Space is nowadays commonly thought of as ripe for human colonisation. Certainly the arrival on January 3 of Nasa's Spirit rover and the subsequent snapshots of the rugged, boulder-strewn Martian landscape proved extremely popular. Hits on Nasa's website took it soaring to a record daily high.

Yet the fact of the matter is that space is not the modern equivalent of crossing the Atlantic Ocean and reaching the New World in 1492. Christopher Columbus and the conquistadors who followed him over the next 30 years allowed the Spanish monarchy to amass unprecedented riches. They stole gold and land and enslaved the native people en masse. America, confirms distinguished French historian Fernand Braudel, represented the "treasure of treasures" (F Braudel Civilisation and capitalism Vol 3, Berkeley 1992, p420). After two centuries of superhuman efforts - driven half by base greed, half by sublime yearnings for freedom - the Americas were reinvented and transformed into Europe's outer skin.

The promised spin-offs from a moon base are in comparison quite frankly risible - mining rare metals, manufacturing pure crystals, beaming solar energy back to Earth, etc smack of technological quackery rather than rational investment. Mars is no different. It is virtually airless, barren, inhospitable, hellishly cold and prone to gigantic sandstorms. Nothing exists there that cannot be made or obtained far more cheaply on Earth. Possibly there might be sources of frozen water under its rocky surface. But why travel for six months in a tiny capsule and across vast expanses of space for that? Yes, eminent scientists speculate about the possibility of terraforming. The Martian atmosphere could be artificially oxygenated, greatly thickened and thereby warmed. Once again water could then freely flow. However, this would take quite a few years - roughly a million.

Of course, Nasa and the whole US space business is a branch, or extension, of the military-industrial complex. Satellites, computer-enhanced imag-ing, Saturn rockets, the space shuttle, etc owe far more to military requirements for nuclear missiles, communications, spying, guidance and pinpoint targeting than so-called pure science. Behind Bush's Mars mission lurks a sinister bipartisan agenda for ensuring US domination of near space: Nasa has space-plane 'taxis' and geo-stationary weapons platforms ready on the drawing board and is eagerly awaiting the go-ahead. There is another, more important, factor at work besides electioneering. Production of the means of destruction, the third department of production (the other two being the production of the means of production and the production of the means of consumption), allows capitalism to guarantee "maximum" self-expansion from the firm basis of the "minimum" consumption of the relatively impoverished masses (I Mészáros The power of ideology Hemel Hempstead 1989, p226). Their limited ability to purchase the means of consumption no longer constitutes a barrier.

Turning the production of the means of destruction into a system of profit and self-expansion through state purchase effectively obliterates the distinction between consumption and destruction. This is feasible precisely because for capital the purpose of production, the end aim, is not human consumption of use-values according to need: rather it is self-expansion for its own sake. Problems of real use, and therefore real consumption, are overcome (though not eliminated) through the unlimited ability of the state to generate artificial demand and purchase waste - ie, the means of destruction - through credit and taxation. This innovative response to capitalist overproduction - initially tried before World War I and then after the 1929-33 world economic crisis - was made into a model of normality after 1945. The annual peacetime US arms budget is today fast heading towards $500 billion.

The state legitimises this perverse and obscene squandering of human and material resources through patriotism. A real or imagined enemy is singled out and thoroughly demonised: eg, kaiser Germany, European fascism, communism, Saddam Hussein, bin Laden and islamic terrorism. Voting in favour of the endless production of waste therefore becomes a national duty and imposes a welcome internal discipline over the working class. Spending on Nasa and the space programme is essentially no different. Except that, besides patriotism, it is able to harness another misplaced idealism - the Quixotic belief that space represents humanity's natural destiny and promises solutions to every pseudo-problem from overpopulation to global warming. Meanwhile, back here on planet Earth, the United Nations estimates that over a billion people have no access to clean drinking water, some 840 million have to survive on significantly less than the daily recommended daily intake of calories and around 30 million are infected with HIV/Aids. There is nothing inevitable or natural about any of this.

Neoliberal, IMF and World Bank programmes of market 'reform' and subordination to capitalist globalisation over the last 20 years have greatly exacerbated the unevenness of the system. Leave aside the growing gap between the mega-rich and the masses in the advanced countries: the so-called 'developing' world has in fact progressively been de-developed. Human misery - poverty, disease and hunger - thereby increases, not decreases.

Yet with organisation and political will humanity has within its reach the ability to easily meet all basic needs. The wealth exists in abundance. Simply diverting the US arms budget to such real uses would do that - almost at a stroke. But such a turnaround can never happen through the platitudes and essentially diversionary calls of the NGOs, religious notables and various leftwing reformers for rich governments to do their moral duty. The modern state palpably exists to defend, serve and promote the self-expansion of capital - the two are inextricably and increasingly interwoven and interdependent.

Social problems demand social solutions. Humanity - which can viably only be led by the revolutionary working class - faces an epochal challenge of putting humanity's wealth under social control. Capitalism long ago outlived any usefulness it once possessed. Now this most alienated of social relationships threatens our very existence - through economic crash, world war and ecological destruction.

Once humanity has superseded capitalism and become properly human, who knows what we might choose to do. Mars, along with other planets and moons in the solar system, could be explored by self-replicating robots or terraformed in an attempt to make them habitable. Perhaps one day in the far future our descendants might reach nearby stars. Now, however, the main subject of humanity must be humanity - as we find it, here on this planet. Our mission is transforming Earth. Jack Conrad