A while back, in a column calling for more arts funding, I observed that a lot more people are interested in classical music, ballet, theater and museums than are interested in space exploration, so the NEA should get at least as much money as NASA. Who cares, I blithely asked, what color rocks Mars has? Lots of Nation readers, as it turned out, and a number of staffers too. I had no idea. Now that George W. Bush is proposing to establish a long-term base on the moon as early as 2015 and eventually to send humans to Mars, I won’t repeat the mistake of assuming that everyone shares my lack of enthusiasm for astronautery and outer space. According to a somewhat confusing AP-Ipsos poll, 48 percent (disproportionately men, but you knew that) favor Bush’s proposals for space exploration and 48 percent oppose it, although only 38 percent support sending people, which the proposal involves (57 percent prefer using robots). Fifty-five percent oppose it when given the option of spending the money on education and healthcare, and two-thirds of Democrats oppose it when it is identified as a “Bush Administration” plan. But let’s not quibble–space is probably fascinating once you get into it, like Wagner or The Lord of the Rings or football. Someday, it might even be interesting to know if there was ever life on Mars–although it would also be interesting to know who put those statues on Easter Island, or why so often you can tell who’s calling by the way the telephone rings.

Life is full of mysteries, I’m trying to say, and space is such an expensive one! Estimates of Bush’s proposals run into the hundreds of billions of dollars over the next several decades. If you care about the deficit, as conservatives claimed they did until Bush created a huge one through tax cuts for the rich, it’s hard to justify. Even if the immediate amount turns out to be much smaller–Bush has proposed only $1 billion in new funding over the next five years, leaving the big bills for his successor–does it really makes sense to spend a significant sum to satisfy an idle curiosity when we can spend the money solving some other, equally daunting scientific challenge that would actually make people happier, healthier and better able to fulfill their capabilities in their brief time on earth? I’m all for boldly going forth and expressing the human spirit–why can’t we do that by solving the enormous scientific and technological challenges posed by global warming? Because that would involve admitting that global warming is happening? and is caused by human activity? In the January 13 New York Times Science section, the front page that carried Kenneth Chang’s article championing the idea of a moon base also carried an ominous article detailing rising temperatures in the Alaskan tundra, which is now frozen for only 100 days a year; thirty years ago it was 200. Of the photographs in that section, which ones represent a phenomenon that is more likely to affect humanity first: the grim ones comparing the robust summer polar ice cap of 1979 with its moth-eaten 2003 self, or the lovely ones of planets and nebulae and galaxies illustrating the story on mapping the cosmos? Space isn’t going anywhere–we can always study it later. Earth, however, may be going down the tubes a lot faster than we imagine. Those billions would fund a lot of environment-friendly innovation.

As for science–fighting AIDS is science. “We can put a cowboy on Mars,” quips my colleague Richard Kim, “or we can treat everyone on the planet with AIDS for the next generation. Three hundred billion dollars would pay for AIDS drugs at the generic prices cited in Bush’s State of the Union address ($300 per year, per person) for all 40 million people with HIV for the next twenty-five years.” Reproductive health is science. According to the January Lancet, half a million women die every year from pregnancy-related causes, 99 percent of them in underdeveloped countries; it’s one of the most neglected health problems in the world today. Delivering quality care adapted to the circumstances of impoverished and often illiterate people living in isolated villages and farms, training a local healthcare force and paying it enough to stay put instead of fleeing to jobs in wealthier places, insuring women the human rights that undergird safe maternity, whether freedom from forced child marriage or access to family planning–that seems to me as urgent as setting up house on the moon.

Education is science–you could fund a lot of schools in poor countries, where 43 percent of boys and 48 percent of girls aren’t even getting a primary education; you could buy a lot of books and maps and lab equipment and train a lot of teachers and create, in the next generation, a lot more scientists–let them go to the moon! We say we’re so upset about the spread of Islamic fundamentalism–yet we stand by while rich Saudis set up Wahhabi madrassahs all over the Muslim world and invite poor parents to send their kids for free. These youngsters could be learning astronomy instead of memorizing the Koran. We could put our Mars money where our mouth is.

I actually believe in science. I believe we are clever enough to think our way out of the problems we make for ourselves. We need to think big–on contraception, medicine, pollution, energy, food, water. Indeed, one of the worst aspects of the Bush Administration is its contempt for science. Thanks to Bush, creationist tracts are being sold in national parks–did you know that the Grand Canyon is only a few thousand years old, like the rest of the world? And faith healers like David Hager, who thinks Jesus will cure your PMS, sit on FDA advisory panels. Bush policies disregard serious research–on the effectiveness of condoms to prevent HIV, on the ineffectiveness of abstinence-only sex education–and shun the promise of stem cell research, all in obedience to the crabbed sexual taboos of the right.

Besides, doesn’t the moon belong to everyone, not just NASA, not just the United States? Must lovers and lonely people from Newfoundland to Bangladesh look up at night and think: There’s the moon, round and silvery and full of Republicans?