Monday, January 19, 2004

Junior Birdman
When President Bush announced plans for a US mission to Mars in 2030 (thereby ensuring plenty of Oh, For God Sake material for at least another 26 years), I had mixed emotions: Which was more deeply profound: the fact that we'll spend a half a trillion dollars on a rock-collecting mission or the very idea that President Bush has the slightest idea what he's talking about? I finally decided on the latter. It was just too surreal: President George W. Bush, whose life's work is the very model for the expression, "it's not rocket science," explaining ... rocket science!

"Lifting heavy spacecraft and fuel out of the Earth's gravity is expensive," the President knowingly declared. "Spacecraft assembled and provisioned on the moon could escape its far-lower gravity using far less energy, and thus, far less cost. Also, the moon is home to abundant resources. Its soil contains raw materials that might be harvested and processed into rocket fuel or breathable air... We do not know where this journey will end, yet we know this: human beings are headed into the cosmos." And then he made that "pow, right in the kisser" pantomime that Ralph Kramden always made when threatening to send Alice to the moon.

The President's plan is ambitious: First, we'll fly to the moon, trying hard not to blow our astronauts to smithereens. Once there, we'll build a base, from where we can exploit the moon's natural resources (cheese) to harvest rocket fuel, generate breathable air, and build a space station, a Starbucks, and a Wal-Mart (the grocery kind, so astronauts can buy cool camping gear, but also Tang). Next, we'll take advantage of the moon's lower gravity to launch a mission to Mars, where we'll search for weapons of mass destruction, Nicole Brown Simpson's real killer, and the Democratic Party's backbone. In the process, we'll make many important scientific and technological discoveries, such as Pop Rocks and new cell-phone ring tones.

Exciting stuff. But what I could not get out of my mind as the President unveiled his Mars vision was the collaboration that must have gone on between his speechwriters and NASA engineers. I kept wondering how many drafts it took to dumb it down enough. What's more, NASA engineers clearly are crazy cutups. (How else can you explain the MTV Spring Break beach umbrella that is visible in the upper left corner of that recent panoramic Mars photo?) They are bound to have had a lot of fun at the president's expense:

Doo da loo da loo, doo da loo da loo, doo da loo da loo...

NASA Conference Room A

NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe: Thanks for coming everybody. With an 80-billion-and-counting money pit in Iraq, record deficits, a health-insurance crisis, a worldwide terror emergency, an unsafe national food supply, multiple disease epidemics and a new "American Idol" bearing down on the country, President Rove ... um, Bush! I mean Bush... has decided to take strong action.

Engineer #1: Announce a mission to Mars?

Engineer #2: Shut up, this is serious.

O'Keefe: No, he's right. We are going to Mars.

Engineer #2 (embarrassed): Right. I knew that. But we have no idea how to put a human on Mars. And even if we did, it would cost... what... 500 billion dollars?

O'Keefe: We don't have to actually know how to do it. We just have to give the president's speechwriters a rough outline. The actual plan can come later. Thoughts?

Engineer #1. Let's have him say we are close to developing a process that turns cow brains into rocket fuel!

Engineer #2: Pa dum pum! How about a ladder! A great, big ladder to Mars! No, wait. An escalator! Let's build an escalator! Less climbing.

O'Keefe: Can we be serious for a moment? What is the biggest challenge to sending a manned mission to Mars? Is it the high cost and environmental risks of propelling a sufficient volume of nuclear rocket fuel out of Earth's atmosphere or getting the president to pronounce the word "nuclear" correctly in his speech?

Engineer #1 [spits coffee all over the conference room table]: Good one, Chief! [Vacuum-mops up coffee with magic NASA vacuum Wet Wipes, developed from technology gained from previous missions]

Engineer #3: Hey, how about a wormhole? We could say we found a wormhole that leads to the cosmos.

Engineer #4: In Afghanistan!

Engineer #3: Right, so it would belong to America.

Engineer #1: Or, a new drug! You take a pill and -- presto! -- you're on Mars.

Engineer #2: It worked for Limbaugh.

Engineer #3 (wistful): Lucky Limby. A true pioneer.

Engineer #4: Or a really, really, really big trampoline...

O'Keefe: OK, let's get serious. What do you think about a base on the moon? We build a base on the moon and launch a mission to Mars from there?

Engineer #1: I like it!

Engineer #2: Me too. We've already been to the moon [winks at everybody]. It's got a ring of plausibility. Plus, I'm getting hungry.

Engineer #3: Me too. Anybody up for freeze-dried burrito crystals?

Engineer #4: But wait. What about money? A moon base would cost billions of dollars.

O'Keefe: I don't think he's going to actually fund it; just demand it.

Engineer #1: Oh. Clever. Like No Child Left Behind.

O'Keefe: Right. [rubs tummy] I'm thinking powdered sushi. Who's with me?

Doo da loo da loo, doo da loo da loo, doo da loo da loo...

And so a speech was born. And the President delivered it, with gusto. And America cheered and turned its gaze once again toward the heavens. And asked: Is this man really our President? And: When does the new "Survivor" start?