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Byline: By DAN O'NEILL South Wales Echo

Way back in 1970 in a world still dazzled by the first Moonwalkers, Nixon's vice-president Spiro T Agnew pledged that America would put a man on Mars by the year 2000. Total rubbish, of course. Spiro, later forced to resign (and lucky to escape jail) for bribe-taking, was simply offering a 20th Century version of Rome's bread and circuses. Now here we go again.

Nasa this week announced a plan to use the Moon as a launch pad for man on Mars round about 2020, following George Bush's call last year for an extra $11bn towards this new space adventure.

Cynics suggested that California and Florida, the states in line to lap up the space age gravy, were crucial to Dubya's election hopes, hence his sudden interest. And who am I to dispute this entirely logical claim?

His explanation, of course, was that space exploration 'improves our lives and lifts our national spirit' - and might even make the voters forget the woeful mishandling of Hurricane Katrina.

Eleven billion! Sounds a lot. But when Georges's daddy called for a manned mission by 2019 Nasa estimated the cost at $400bn. That was in 1979. Today's price tag is $600bn (pounds 330bn). Daddy's plan was quietly shelved just as this one will be. And just think what that cash could do to help save this planet from ruin instead of polluting another.

Yet I can see the allure. The Red Planet has always been the most fascinating of our neighbours, beloved by generations of sci-fi writers from H G Wells to Edgar Rice Burroughs, whose Mars was populated by hordes of multi-coloured Martians.

The American Ray Bradbury, 'science fiction's Poet Laureate,' gave us a planet whose peoples had disappeared long, long ago leaving only the hint of crystal cities, the shades of vanished cultures to haunt us, and our own sci-fi master J G Ballard has mused that Bradbury might have been close to the truth.

'After all,' he said, 'we don't know whether or not Mars was never inhabited.'

But disappointingly, when the space camera Mariner first circled the planet 40 years ago not one of its hundreds of pictures showed a Green Martian looking up while obligingly saying 'cheese'.

No Green Martians, but more recent probes have discovered signs of methane on Mars and as methane is a waste product of organisms on Earth its presence, say scientists, could be proof that yes, there is life Out There.

Bacteria on Mars? The Martian invaders of Wells' War of the Worlds were finally snuffed by our bacteria. What might happen if Martian bacteria is brought back?

But will we ever get there anyway? The trip would take seven months with another 18 months on the planet before Earth and Mars were in positions suitable for the return journey.

While travelling they'd be exposed to massive radiation, still more after landing. We know what radiation can do but according to Nasa we don't know what long periods of zero gravity might do. 'Astronauts in space for a year return and can't walk,' says Nasa's David Williams. So what happens when men land on Mars - and can't walk?

Not a good idea, then, Nasa.

Unless, of course, Dubya himself makes that first trip.
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Publication:South Wales Echo (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Sep 23, 2005
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