When Christopher Columbus set sail from the port of Palos de la Frontera on Aug. 3, 1492, no doubt there was some peasant standing on the wharf, muttering to himself, "A fine waste of royal escudos. As if we don't have enough problems at home. Why are their stinkin' majesties funding a voyage to nowhere?"
Fortunately for Spain, those benighted views did not prevail. If they had, Spain would not have gained one of the most lucrative empires in history. Unfortunately for us, the sentiments of that apocryphal peasant seem to be the dominant reaction to President Bush's bold vision for colonizing the moon and visiting Mars, which may be why he didn't mention it in the State of the Union speech.
A chorus of critics is demanding that, instead of exploring brave new worlds, we perfect the one that we already have.
I, too, would be against the space program if, by abolishing it, we could end poverty, hunger, illness and "American Idol." But, except for "American Idol," which is of more recent vintage, all these afflictions have been with us since time immemorial, and their existence in no way vitiates the case for exploration.
Various justifications have been advanced for moon and Mars missions: reaping technology spinoffs, tapping rich mineral deposits, creating a safeguard against having our own planet wiped out, even the possibility of discovering life elsewhere (microorganic life, not little green men).
They're all good reasons, but for me the overriding rationale is simpler: It would be a cool thing to do.
I recognize that we don't necessarily want to spend untold jillions of taxpayer dollars simply to do something cool. But there's an alternative to the hugely expensive, highly inefficient NASA bureaucracy.
Most experts think that, if left in NASA's hands, going to Mars would cost hundreds of billions of dollars. Robert Zubrin, a respected aerospace engineer and founder of the Mars Society, has proposed that, instead, the government simply offer a prize of $20 billion -- less than 1% of the federal budget, or about what we're spending annually on farm subsidies -- for the first round-trip to Mars.
Such contests were a common way of encouraging discoveries in the past; the chronometer was invented in the 18th century to win a British prize of 20,000 pounds sterling (a handsome sum then and now) for measuring longitude at sea. Today, there are plenty of aerospace companies that could rise to the challenge; and if they don't, we don't lose anything.
John Tierney, in a 1996 New York Times magazine article titled "How to Get to Mars (And Make Millions!)," went one step further. He suggested that the winning Mars mission could defray a lot of its costs through deals with commercial sponsors.
"The Olympic Games," he wrote, "a three-week media event, currently generates close to $2 billion from television and marketing deals; packaged properly, the three-year Mars extravaganza might make considerably more."
The possibilities are, so to speak, out of this world -- Mars cereal, Mars music, Mars dance contests. The biggest extravaganza of all would be a reality TV series. If millions tune in to watch a bunch of people stuck on a desert island, how many more will watch a bunch of people stuck on another planet?
The only real challenge would be to figure out how to get a bikini-clad babe into the spacecraft, but I'm sure Mark Burnett, the genius behind "Survivor," would be up to the task. Maybe he could combine "Mission to Mars" with his latest show, "The Apprentice"; I'd bet a lot of people would pay good money to see Donald Trump blasted off into outer space.
This may sound crass and goofy, but there's nothing new about mixing exploration and commercialization. All the giants of the Age of Discovery -- Columbus, Drake, Magellan, Da Gama, et al -- financed their voyages from a combination of private and public sources. In the early 20th century, Ernest Shackleton helped pay for his Antarctic expeditions by selling media rights, writing a tell-all book and going on a lecture tour. Robert Peary, a competing polar explorer, marketed his own brand of snowshoes and outerwear.
What's new is the big government approach used in the Manhattan Project and the Apollo program. It works, but it's awfully expensive, and it's hard to justify absent a compelling national security imperative. If we can get to Mars for less, we should give it a (space) shot.
Max Boot is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. This is his first weekly column for The Times.