The Martian Plan

Newt Gingrich thinks Americans need a new frontier to explore. He also believes in paying bounties to promote public objectives. Hence the proposal prepared at his invitation by space entrepreneur Robert Zubrin for a federal bounty of $20 billion payable to the first private organization that puts someone on Mars and brings that man or woman back to earth alive. The proposal is detailed in Zubrin's book, The Case for Mars: The Plan to Settle the Red Planet and Why We Must (Free Press), and at the "Headquarters for the Mars Direct Manned Mars Mission" on the Web site,

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I don't wish to disparage the idea of settling another planet; in fact, we all know a few people who might fit in better on Mars, and this would at least be a first step toward giving them the chance to relocate. But $20 billion is a steep price to pay, and members of Congress may be hesitating to set aside that much money in the federal budget for fear of being brought back to earth by the voters first.

So let me modestly suggest a few other incentives for Martian exploration that are more fiscally prudent and all highly consistent with Republican philosophy.

First, any company that sends someone to Mars could be given the right to rename the planet. We now have sports stadiums renamed after corporations, and some enthusiasts of commercial sponsorship have proposed giving national parks the names of firms that invest in them. The opportunity to rename the Red Planet would be the biggest sponsorship opportunity of all—a perpetual advertisement in the night sky and the human imagination. Children would henceforth be taught, "First comes Mercury, next is Venus, then Earth, then . . . Forbes," or "Trump," or "Disneyplanet." (Tough policy question: Would we rename Mars after Phillip Morris?)

Another possibility would be to offer space entrepreneurs the opportunity to claim ownership of Mars. Of course, we wouldn't want to give away all of Mars at once, maybe just a few million square miles at a time. Still, this would be the ultimate privatization opportunity, probably the biggest land deal since the Louisiana Purchase. Think of the gold mines, the potential to resell land for retirement homes, the exclusive rights to Martian life forms.

Third, companies could be offered the opportunity to establish tax-free "off-planet" banks and casinos on Mars. These wouldn't even require people, since they could be operated in "outercyberspace" by computers and be accessible via the Internet. But once computers established a tax-free haven, libertarians and other extraterrestrials fed up with high taxes would be sure to follow.

In the future, our descendants may speak of "planetary preferences" the way we talk about "sexual preferences." Your grandparents didn't know they had a sexual preference; you may be equally unaware of your earth-centric bias. So don't laugh about life on Mars. You may be offending a future minority group.

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