It’s time for Congress to get its priorities straight
You might have noticed recent media reports concerning NASA’s Phoenix mission. The space agency successfully landed a robotic probe, known as a “scout,” on Mars’ North Pole. The planet is mostly desert, but scientists believe water ice lurks just below the frozen tundra in the arctic regions. Phoenix will probe the surface in search of the ice, which might contain evidence of current or past life on Earth’s neighbor.
We have a fascination with the Red Planet. Dozens of science-fiction films with a Martian theme have been produced. And those of a certain age—which includes me—remember fondly the 1960s sitcom “My Favorite Martian.” NASA also has a fascination with Mars. Since the first Mariner expedition in 1964, the space agency has launched 19 missions to the planet.
I wasn’t able to come up with an aggregate cost of these missions in my research, but it is safe to say that America has spent a boatload to explore Mars. For instance, the Phoenix mission is setting taxpayers back about $400 million. The Viking program alone, which landed two probes on Mars in 1975, cost us roughly $1 billion—which translates to about $4.2 billion in today’s dollars.
And NASA is far from done. Over the next two decades, the agency is planning several more robotic missions to Mars that will conduct deep-drilling explorations of the Martian crust and bring back rock, soil and atmospheric samples. And they’re still talking about a manned mission to the planet. Collectively, the cost for these missions could run in the trillions of dollars.
I have to be honest: I couldn’t care less about whether microbes currently are swimming around in the Martian ice, whether they ever did, or whether they ever will. I’m not saying that it wouldn’t be interesting. It would. But to get me really juiced—and to justify in my mind the gigantic investment we’re making in Mars exploration—the mission would have to bring back a real-life Martian.
It’s not that I’m against science or exploration. I watch the Discovery channel on a regular basis. And there have been exploratory expeditions in our country’s history that made perfect sense. For instance, the Lewis and Clark Expedition in the 1880s—which forged a route to the Pacific Ocean and gave the federal government a much better understanding of the American West—certainly was worth the $39,000 spent on the effort (which, by the way, equates to just $557,000 today, a pittance compared with what NASA is spending on its current Phoenix mission.)
I’m sure that some would argue too that the Apollo program (1961-1975)—which landed Astronaut Neil Armstrong on the moon in 1969, an important event during the Cold War—was worth the staggering, at the time, $25 billion it cost (about $104 trillion in today’s dollars).
But the bottom line—literally—is that we have more pressing needs today than exploring Mars.
One of those more pressing needs is a nationwide broadband wireless network for first responders. The total cost of such a network is estimated at $20 billion. According to the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association (CTIA), there are now 255 million users of wireless voice and data devices in the U.S. If the cost of building this network were spread across those users over a decade, the monthly tab for each would come to 78 cents. An easy funding mechanism already exists—the Federal Telephone Excise Tax, which has come and gone several times over the past half century, at the whim of Congress. Keep it in place, and it will generate $2 billion annually to operate and maintain the network once it’s built.
The FCC is soliciting comments right now as to what to do with the 10 MHz of 700 MHz D Block spectrum that it wants to pair with 10 MHz of public safety spectrum in the band to form the backbone of the aforementioned nationwide network for first responders. Here’s my comment: Congress should give the D Block to public safety and then it should enact legislation that would fund, at taxpayer expense, this vital network. The 700 MHz auction generated more than $19 billion, which far exceeded Congress’ $12 billion goal. Consequently, Congress can afford to be generous in this matter.
It also should be prudent. The unprecedented public-private partnership that has been proposed to build and operate this network—viewed as the only viable option absent federal funding—would be tricky at best, a disaster at worst. There is a simpler, better way.
I’m not naïve. I know mine is a voice in the wilderness. I know Congress will not have the, ahem, fortitude to do what I’m suggesting. Our elected officials today are more interested in doing what will get them re-elected as opposed to what will serve their constituents’ best interests. They perceive any kind of tax increase—even if the cause is just and noble—as the kiss of death.
That said, I believe they underestimate us. I believe that Americans, if asked, would tell them that a network that would help first responders protect us better while keeping them safer would be more valuable and more important than knowing whether Mars did/could support life. I believe they would tell Congress that such a network, in a post-9/11 world, would have a far greater impact on their daily lives than showing the world we are capable of landing some of our citizens on the Red Planet. I believe Congress would find that Americans have their priorities in order. Perhaps, upon learning this, Congress would get its priorities in order.
If you agree with me, write your congressman. Copy the FCC. What do you have to lose?
E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.