Bush Call for Mars Mission Seen as Rhetoric : But S.D. Physicist Finds President’s Support of Program a Milestone

Times Staff Writer

In the opinion of Bruce M. Cordell, a physicist who studies advanced space systems planning for General Dynamics’ San Diego-based Space Systems Division, President Bush’s call this week for a manned mission to Mars was heavy on rhetoric and light on substance.

“You could argue that this was the most minimal statement that a president could make” and still support a manned Mars mission, Cordell said Friday. “But it would be unfair to characterize (Bush’s initiative) as being totally devoid of leadership.”

Several Democratic congressmen have done just that: One lambasted Bush for a proposal that contained “no money, no timetable and no plan.” Another legislator, mindful of the program’s multibillion-dollar price tag, quipped that “there is no such thing as a free launch.”

Faced With Lunar Landing Anniversary


Cordell on Friday speculated that Bush “was faced with the 20th anniversary of the lunar landing, and he wanted to make a public statement.” Unfortunately, “NASA is simply not ready to unveil its detailed plan” for a Mars trip, according to Cordell. That detailed space plan won’t be available until the early 1990s, said Cordell, a former physics professor who joined General Dynamics five years ago.

Bush on Thursday used the 20th anniversary of Neil Armstrong’s moonwalk to propose a three-pronged space program that includes an Earth-orbiting space station , a moon-based scientific station and a manned mission to Mars.

Yet Bush’s speech marked a milestone, despite its “bare-bones approach,” Cordell said. “For the first time ever, an American president has publicly endorsed a manned Mars mission,” he said.

Agnew Made Similar Proposal


Bush’s endorsement of a Mars mission came 20 years after then-Vice President Spiro T. Agnew, who headed a space task force, made a similar proposal, Cordell said. “Needless to say, that got swamped in the Vietnam War and Watergate.”

Cordell believes that Americans will look past the enormous--but as yet, undetermined cost--and embrace what Bush described as a “journey into tomorrow.”

“I find tremendous interest in the prospect of humans exploring the solar system, particularly in Mars colonization,” said Cordell, who regularly talks about space missions “before all types of groups--from kids in school to military groups and Rotary clubs.”

Although opponents will balk at the cost, Cordell argued that “a Mars program is not a budget-busting program . . . it’s not something that will bankrupt the U. S. Rather, it’s an investment in the future of the United States and of global civilization.”


A manned Mars mission would be “the greatest human adventure of our time,” Cordell said in a speech earlier this month during an American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics conference in Washington.

The proposed Mars mission offers “important new scientific knowledge, a compelling stimulus for technological growth, potentially great economic return . . . a chance for improved international relations, and a profound opportunity for the evolution of human civilization and consciousness into the cosmos,” Cordell said during that speech.

Challenging, Risky Mission

Cordell’s grand description of a Mars mission’s benefits doesn’t ignore the fact that a manned Mars mission would be expensive, technologically challenging and risky.


To limit risk, Cordell cautioned against turning the Mars mission into a “space race” between the United States and Russia. That warning echoed former astronaut Sally Ride’s 1987 statement that a space race to Mars could compromise astronaut safety.

Ride in the fall will become director of the of the California Space Institute on the UC San Diego campus. Ride has repeatedly urged national policy planners to establish a permanent lunar research outpost and to develop a coordinated, long-term space exploration plan.

“If it’s not developed, the space program will be fragmented,” Ride said in a recent interview.

Cordell suggested that “a ‘moon-first’ philosophy . . . (would be) more consistent with the incremental increases in mission difficulty and risk that were evident during the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs.”


If the United States does mount a Mars mission, he said, there would be several challenges:

- Medical experts must deal with the effects of “microgravity” upon astronauts’ bones, muscles and cell tissue during the two-to-four-year Mars mission.

- Waste recycling would be critical during a Mars mission because space limitations would prohibit astronauts from stocking and maintaining an adequate supply of air, water and food.

- Doctors are studying the effects of radiation, which will be 100 times heavier than levels encountered during Apollo lunar missions.


- During the years-long adventure, astronauts will face all of the leading causes of death--cancer, heart attack, suicide, trauma, etc.--facing their fellow earthlings.

- Social scientists also are studying how a highly trained group would react to an “isolated and confined” space ship. They also are studying “the slightly touchy subject of sex in space” because there is a “high likelihood of mixed-gender crews,” Cordell said.