Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Mars can wait. Oceans can't

By Amitai Etzioni, Special to CNN
August 17, 2012 -- Updated 1955 GMT (0355 HKT)
James Cameron's recent journey to the deepest point in the ocean deserves more attention, says Amitai Etzioni.
James Cameron's recent journey to the deepest point in the ocean deserves more attention, says Amitai Etzioni.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Many voices have suggested U.S. should reinvigorate its space program
  • Amitai Etzioni says there are more pressing priorities on earth than in space
  • Manned missions are much less cost effective than robotic exploration, he says
  • Etzioni: Exploring the ocean, much of which is uncharted, is an urgent priority

Editor's note: Amitai Etzioni is professor of international relations and director of the Institute for Communitarian Policy Studies at George Washington University.

Washington (CNN) -- While space travel still gets a lot of attention, not enough attention has been accorded to a major new expedition to the deepest point in the ocean, some 7 miles deep -- the recent journey by James Cameron, on behalf of National Geographic.

The cover story of the prestigious journal Foreign Affairs lays out the "Case for Space." "60 Minutes" recently ran a story about the dire effects on Florida's space industry of scaling back our extraterrestrial endeavors. Newt Gingrich gained attention earlier this year by calling for building a permanent base on the moon. And President Obama has talked of preparing to eventually send Americans into orbit around Mars.

Actually, there are very good reasons to stop spending billions of dollars on manned space missions, to explore space in ways that are safer and much less costly, and to grant much higher priority to other scientific and engineering mega-projects, the oceans in particular.

Amitai Etzioni
Amitai Etzioni

The main costs of space exploration arise from the fact that we are set on sending humans, rather than robots. The reasons such efforts drive up the costs include: A human needs a return ticket, while a robot can go one way. Space vehicles for humans must be made safe, while we can risk a bunch of robots without losing sleep. Robots are much easier to feed, experience little trouble when subject to prolonged weightlessness, and are much easier to shield from radiation. And they can do most tasks humans can.

British astronomer royal Martin Rees writes, "I think that the practical case (for manned flights) gets weaker and weaker with every advance in robotics and miniaturization. It's hard to see any particular reason or purpose in going back to the moon or indeed sending people into space at all." Nobel Laureate Steven Weinberg calls manned missions "an incredible waste of money" and argues that "for the cost of putting a few people on a very limited set of locations on Mars we could have dozens of unmanned, robotic missions roving all over Mars."

The main argument for using humans is a public relations one. As Neil deGrasse Tyson puts it in Foreign Affairs, "China's latest space proclamations could conceivably produce another 'Sputnik moment' for the United States, spurring the country into action after a relatively fallow period in its space efforts." Also, astronauts are said to inspire our youth to become scientists and explorers. However, it is far from established that we cannot achieve the same effects by making other R&D projects our main priority.

Take the oceans, about which we know much less than the dark side of the moon. Ninety percent of the ocean floor has not even been charted, and while we have been to the moon, the technology to explore the ocean's floors is still being developed. For example, a permanent partially-submerged sea exploration station, called the SeaOrbiter, is currently in development.

The oceans play a major role in controlling our climate. But we have not learned yet how to use them to cool us off rather than contribute to our overheating. Ocean organisms are said to hold the promise of cures for an array of diseases. An examination of the unique eyes of skate (ray fish) led to advances in combating blindness, the horseshoe crab was crucial in developing a test for bacterial contamination, and sea urchins helped in the development of test-tube fertilization.

The toadfish's ability to regenerate its central nervous system is of much interest to neuroscientists. A recent Japanese study concluded that the drug eribulin, which was derived from sea sponges, is effective in combating breast, colon, and urinary cancer.

Given the looming crisis of water scarcity, we badly need more efficient and less costly methods to desalinate ocean water. By 2025, 1.8 billion people are expected to suffer from severe water scarcity, with that number jumping to 3.9 billion by 2050—well over a third of the entire global population.

If the oceans do not make your heart go pitter-patter, how about engineering a bacteria that eats carbon dioxide -- and thus helps protect the world from overheating -- AND excretes fuel which will allow us to drive our cars and machines, without oil? I cannot find any evidence that people young or old, Americans or citizens of other nations, would be less impressed or less inspired with such a breakthrough than with one more set of photos of a far away galaxy or a whole Milky Way full of stars.

Space enthusiasts claim that space exploration has generated major spinoffs for our life right here on Earth. Tyson quotes President Obama suggesting that the Apollo mission "produced technologies that have improved kidney dialysis and water purification systems; sensors to test for hazardous gases; energy-saving building materials; and fire-resistant fabrics used by firefighters and soldiers," and adds a few more innovations to the list: "digital imaging, implantable pacemakers, collision-avoidance systems on aircraft, precision LASIK eye surgery, and global positioning satellites."

Of course, the space environment is radically different from the one on Earth. Materials and technologies that are suited for a vacuum, zero gravity, and extreme cold and heat are not the ones we typically can use on Earth.

Opinion: Gingrich's moon colony lost in the laughter

Elias Carayannis, professor of Science, Technology, Innovation and Entrepreneurship at The George Washington University, notes "government agencies -- particularly those such as the National Space and Aeronautics Administration that are continually pressured to justify their activities -- tout the spin-off value of their investments in sometimes quite extravagant claims." Products such as Velcro, Tang, and Teflon that are often cited as spinoffs of space technology did not actually result from the space program.

Space promoters tell us, once every few months, that there are signs that there might be or has been water on one of the planets that might make "life" possible. I wonder if some of those who hear these reports interpret them to mean that we expect to find a civilization out there, one that we could ally with, say against the Chinese. What scientists are really talking about is organic material, the kind found in any compost -- not a reason to spend billions of dollars of public funds.

In short, do not cry for Mars. It is not going away. We can send R2D2 to explore it and still keep a whole pile of dough for important and inspiring exploration missions right here on Earth, starting at the beach nearest you.

Follow us on Twitter: @CNNOpinion

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Amitai Etzioni.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1941 GMT (0341 HKT)
Stuart Gitlow says pot is addictive and those who smoke it can experience long-term psychiatric disease.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1645 GMT (0045 HKT)
Gabby Giffords and Katie Ray-Jones say "Between 2001 and 2012, more women were shot to death by an intimate partner in our country than the total number of American troops killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined."
July 29, 2014 -- Updated 2357 GMT (0757 HKT)
Alan Elsner says Secretary Kerry's early cease-fire draft was leaked and presented as a final document, which served the interests of hard-liners on both sides who don't want the Gaza war to stop.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1158 GMT (1958 HKT)
Vijay Das says Medicare is a success story that could provide health care for everybody, not just seniors
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1818 GMT (0218 HKT)
Rick Francona says Israel seems determined to render Hamas militarily ineffective.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1743 GMT (0143 HKT)
S.E. Cupp says the entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner thinks for himself and refuses to be confined to an ideological box.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
A Christian group's anger over the trailer for "Black Jesus," an upcoming TV show, seems out of place, Jay Parini says
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 2028 GMT (0428 HKT)
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1939 GMT (0339 HKT)
Carol Dweck and Rachel Simmons: Girls tend to have a "fixed mindset" but they should have a "growth mindset."
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1251 GMT (2051 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1852 GMT (0252 HKT)
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1635 GMT (0035 HKT)
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1555 GMT (2355 HKT)
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
July 27, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 2225 GMT (0625 HKT)
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1510 GMT (2310 HKT)
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1533 GMT (2333 HKT)
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1245 GMT (2045 HKT)
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1850 GMT (0250 HKT)
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1349 GMT (2149 HKT)
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 2205 GMT (0605 HKT)
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1142 GMT (1942 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1637 GMT (0037 HKT)
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1209 GMT (2009 HKT)
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT