Should man go to Mars? I must say that I find the pictures of the red, eerily lonely landscape of the planet sent back by the Nasa Spirit and Opportunity rovers to be rather exciting; what a pity that the British Beagle lander failed and could not send us back even more information. But the prospect of human beings landing there and exploring that red surface seems even more enticing. No wonder I was stirred by President Bush when he gave the reasons for a putative manned mission to Mars. "Why the moon? Why Mars?" he asked in a moment of soaring oratory. "Because it is humanity's destiny to strive, to seek, to find - and because it is America's destiny to lead."
It was a visionary moment indeed for the president, echoing that of JFK in 1961 when he pledged that America would land a man on the moon by the end of that decade (as actually happened on 20 July 1969). But this was not Boy George talking. The inspiring vision of America sending human beings to Mars came from the first President Bush, nearly 15 years ago. And, as his boy did in the retread version in 2004, he fudged how the country would actually pay for such a boldly ambitious venture. Nothing, naturally, happened then. Now Boy George has earmarked a hopelessly paltry $1bn to the project, saying that Nasa's existing $11bn annual budget can be diverted from current programmes.
I'm told that, technically, Boy George's announcement is complete bunkum. David Letterman, the late-night talk-show host, even says it is a sign that America's 43rd president has gone back to drink. "Lunatic" is the double entendre others prefer. Or, as one of the no-hoper Democrat candidates has quipped, perhaps Boy George hopes to find Saddam Hussein's WMDs on Mars.
Indeed, the proposal shows all the signs of being written hastily on the back of an envelope by Dubbya's speechwriters. The notion is that the International Space Station be used as a staging post, before going on to build a colony that would sustain human beings on the moon. From there, rockets would whoosh astronauts off to Mars. Simple, really. "Establishing an extended human presence on the moon could vastly reduce the costs of further space exploration," pronounced Boy George. "Spacecraft assembled and provisioned on the moon could escape its far lower gravity using far less energy and thus far less cost." There is more of the 2004 version of Bushian wisdom, too: "The moon is home to abundant resources. Its soil contains raw materials that might be harvested and processed into rocket fuel or breathable air."
Er, would you repeat that please, Mr President? I thought the moon was a deeply barren place with nothing worthwhile on it for humanity. The last astronaut to go there went in 1972. Such is the geological value of the moon that not even an unmanned probe has gone there, either. But Boy George's plan calls for robots to go to the moon by 2008, and for man to return there by 2020. Then the red earth of Mars beckons, and we can all thank former President George W Bush.
Why is it all such drivel, then? First, the International Space Station has become a hugely costly project that does not do anything very useful. Nasa would be quite happy to abandon it, but America has binding agreements with Russia to continue its partial funding of it. Very embarrassingly for the US, Nasa now even has to rely on Russia for transporting astronauts to and from the station. The ageing space shuttle fleet has been grounded since the Columbia disaster a year ago. As a result, the US cannot at present get human beings even into earth orbit.
But a trip to Mars would take as long as three years, travelling a good 100 million miles. A crew would have to consist of at least six - doctors to cope with medical emergencies, a geologist and a biologist, as well as at least two trained astronauts. This makes a Mars project prohibitively expensive, as well as technically very difficult. The launch cost of a space shuttle mission is around $20m per ton - and just getting 1,000 tons of Mars equipment into space would cost $20bn, more than Nasa's annual budget. And that does not include the monumental costs of actually sustaining a vehicle and six human beings all the way to Mars and back.
The Apollo spacecrafts that carried astronauts to the moon weighed just 45 tons at departure, and carried enough material to support three people over ten days in a journey of around 750,000 miles. The probes that have just landed on Mars each weigh a single ton and cost a total of $820m to despatch. Using the same cost scale, a single Mars mission at today's prices would set the country back at least $600bn.
Thus, if anybody at Nasa or elsewhere in government actually takes Boy George's pronouncements seriously, a huge amount of money could be spent before the Mars idea is found to be impractical with the technology available today. It would also be hugely dangerous; one of the unmanned probes that landed on Mars this year bounced hundreds of miles before it settled on its inflatable cushions, and landed with the help of retro-rockets. There would doubtless be volunteers, but what president would sign off on such a mission?
The beauty of it all for Boy George is that any Mars mission cannot possibly become serious until he is safely out of office. If he is not turfed out of the White House this year, he will depart early in 2009 - by which time none of the major work or expenditure will have been incurred. By 2008, indeed, the programme merely calls for a new unmanned robot to be back on the moon - an easy enough project for Nasa that would be relatively inexpensive, but would also be of highly questionable scientific value. In the meantime, Bush is promising not just the moon but Mars to aerospace companies, which can be expected to donate generously to his re-election coffers this year.
The ease with which Boy George is promising such huge sums here, there and everywhere is starting to alarm many Americans. For the fiscal year beginning this October, he is now asking Congress for $401.7bn for defence, an increase of 5.7 per cent over his 2004 request. Total defence spending, including nuclear weapons programmes, are up to $420.7bn - a 7.9 per cent increase. He is also seeking a 9.7 per cent increase in homeland security funding. With his trillion-dollar tax cuts on top of all that, Boy George has turned Bill Clinton's surplus into an increasingly large budget deficit.
But for a visionary president coming up for re-election this year, it's off to Mars we jolly well go - a long time in the future, admittedly. Personally, I would be in favour of serious programmes designed to get mankind to Mars. But Bush II must know as well as Bush I did that his Mars announcement is specious in the extreme. But then, perhaps not. I really am beginning to believe that Boy George honestly does consider himself a great and visionary president, one who mankind is truly blessed to have.