The head of NASA convinces the President that space exploration should be done by private industry, and the United States government declares, “The first person to land on Mars, live there a year, and return alive owns the whole Red Planet.” Welcome to the greatest race in history.
That is the premise of Ron Pisaturo’s novella, The Merchant of Mars, now available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle ebook. That premise draws on a political idea by Objectivist philosopher Harry Binswanger.
Remson pressed his remote control device, and the silver screen illustrated his ensuing words with high-tech animations. “In 1989, NASA submitted a plan to land humans on Mars in thirty years, for 450 billion dollars. That’s four times as long and ten times as expensive as it took to get to the moon. Here was the plan. Getting to Mars and back would require enormous amounts of fuel. A spaceship carrying all that fuel is too heavy to launch from Earth. So the ship would have to be launched in pieces, and assembled on a large space station on the moon and in orbit around the Earth. The assembled craft would take six months to get to Mars and stay there only a month. On the way back, the craft would head not to Earth, but to Venus.”
“Venus?” asked the President.
“That’s right, Mr. President,” said Remson. “That would be the only open launch window all year.” The animation continued, and so did Remson. “The craft would go to Venus, slingshot around that planet, and then reach Earth about a year and a quarter after having left Mars.” The animation paused on the final image, of a spaceship landing on earth.
The President looked perplexed. “Is that the simplest way, Mr. Remson?”
“That was the government way, Mr. President. We weren’t going for simple. Every department head wanted to justify his own pet project, so every new and unproven technology was designed into the mission. That’s how you do the federal budget isn’t it?”
The President remained perplexed. “Is there a better way? To get to Mars, I mean.”
Remson continued patiently. “Our people at NASA are smart, dedicated, and ethical. We can do it a better way, but not the best way, or the cheapest way. I won’t tell you how much this animation cost. In our system, success is measured by the size of your budget. We’ve been given no other clear goal to shoot for. At least when we were racing against the Russians, we knew what our mission was. And now that we have to do joint missions with the United Nations—”
“What is your point?” interrupted Sickle, not as patient as Remson.
Remson, unperturbed, said, “My point is, don’t try to go to Mars. Let private individuals do it, if they want to.”
Sickle replied derisively, “The Mars Prize. The government would offer thirty billion dollars to the first private citizen to land on Mars.”
Remson said, “No, I don’t want that. Why should taxpayers be forced to pay for something they may not want?”
As Remson continued evenly, Sickle became more agitated. “What are you saying?” demanded Sickle.
Remson now more clearly took in the whole room, aware of the import of what he was about to say. “I propose we announce to every person on Earth: If you land on Mars, if you live there for a year, and come back alive, … you own it.”
“You own … what?” asked Sickle, trying not to be aware of what Remson had meant.
“Mars. The first one there and back owns the whole planet. We just step aside and let the race begin.”
Each advisor looked dead serious. Sickle looked dead sick. The President wore a goofy grin.
Now indoors, Voogan continued to follow the older man, his boss, through a work area toward a makeshift office. The boss walked quickly—trying to get away from Voogan.
Now inside the office with the boss, Voogan said, “The idea I told you about last month—”
The boss interrupted. “Which one was that? The nuclear thermal rocket, the laser rocket, the rocket cartoon character?—”
“The Martian fuel maker.”
“The ‘live-off-the-land’ idea?! Come on—”
“A few of us have been working on it—”
“Who authorized you to spend time on that!?”
“—on our own time, offsite—”
“Well make sure you don’t compromise company secrets. And who is ‘we’?”
“I’ll tell you later. Look, we’re—”
“You look. That project was canceled five years ago. You know why?—”
“Because NASA didn’t want it. You know why?—”
“Because it was too cheap. If that thing could be made to work—and I’m not saying it could—there would be no need for big booster rockets, for big space stations, for lots of other big, juicy projects. You know what I mean by juice, boy?—”
“Now there was a time when this project was hot and cool. … I never told you this, but even Farrell himself fought with NASA about it.”
“But they said no. And you know what? It’s a lot better for us. We get paid cost plus ten per cent. Whatever it costs us to build something, NASA pays us that cost plus ten per cent more for profit. Now I’m not going to ask my boss to ask his boss’s boss to ask Farrell to fight for something nobody wants—”
“But it works.”
The boss was taken aback. Some about this young engineer made him feel like a young engineer again. But sadness entered the boss’s eyes. He spoke from the heart, but firmly. “Haven’t you been listening, son. If it works, if it beats all their big projects, then they definitely don’t want it.”
Moments later, Farrell entered a busy office corridor. Alongside him were Rocky, shorter than Farrell but the same age, and a young engineer. Walking behind them, unnoticed, was Voogan.
“What’s the word?” said Farrell to Rocky.
Rocky looked at the young engineer and said “You tell him, McAllister.”
McAllister said, “Mr. Farrell, computer analysis confirms the test results of your laser design. It will reduce mission risk on the orbiter by five per cent.”
Voogan, overhearing all of this, beamed.
“Good,” said Farrell.
Rocky said, “Keep talking, McAllister.”
McAllister said, “It delays the schedule by three months and increases the cost by a hundred million dollars. But Smitty thinks we can get NASA to go for the increase—”
“Stop talking, McAllister,” said Rocky, and walked away from the other two.
“Good work, McAllister,” said Farrell.
“Thank you, sir!” said McAllister as Farrell walked away to follow Rocky. Voogan still stalked Farrell and Rocky, within earshot.
When Farrell had caught up to him, Rocky said, “That laser is a good idea, but not on this spacecraft. It’s too expensive.”
“The orbiter is already as safe as our corporate jet.”
“Smitty’s right, we can get NASA to pay for the increase.”
“We already have a contract with them.”
“We can get Congress to raise the appropriation.”
“It’s not their money. It’s the taxpayers’ money.”
“It could save an astronaut’s life.”
“A hundred million dollars can buy a lot in safety features on automobiles and school buses. I care about safety as much as you do. But if you want to spend that money, then you should write your own check for a hundred million dollars. And also pay the other contractors for the delay in schedule.”
“Rocky, we can ask, they can say no. That’s the system. It’s worked well enough the last twenty-five years.”
“Tom, one day someone is going to say no to the system.”