Can anybody be surprised that most of the world's papers were less than impressed by President Bush's plans for a manned mission to Mars? While the thrill of interplanetary exploration makes for a hot election-year topic at home, much of the foreign press saw it as rocket-fueled American imperialism.
Characterizing a roundup of United Arab Emirates residents' views on Bush's latest policy announcement, the Gulf News said, "[P]resident Bush is promising the moon—quite literally—but people are skeptical about the plan being realized, and call it just another 'political gimmick' designed to uphold US supremacy and resume the space race."
Other voices in the Middle East were less charitable. The Palestinian Authority's Al-Hayat Al-Jadidah practically sneered: "The U.S. is preparing for the invasion of Mars and other planets. ... What are the other planets chosen for the US invasion? Are they an axis of planetary evil?" (Arabic translation courtesy of BBC Monitoring.)
Ridicule of Bush's plans wasn't limited to the Arab world. A columnist in the Age of Australia envisioned the day, not too far in the future, when American astronauts will traverse the rusty red rockscape—"so our scientists will be able to verify the existence of Martian rocks." As for the tremendous price tag affixed to the project? Not to worry. If it doesn't get spent on travel to Mars, it'll go for bombs and freeways, not education and health care. And what tangible impact will such an undertaking have on the future of the world? "A human trip to Mars is about as useful as a surfing trip to the Dandenongs."
A columnist for Canada's Globe and Mail offered an assessment that focused heavily on the realities of the upcoming November elections. Noting that the promise of a trip to Mars may help divert voters' attention from budget deficits, unemployment, and the growing death toll in Iraq, the paper dubbed the project "close to irresistible"—and it certainly doesn't hurt that key electoral states such as California have huge stakes in the aerospace business. Still, the op-ed rejected space's allure, "Of what possible use to humanity are the moon and Mars? Both are barren, lifeless places, with conditions utterly inhospitable to human habitation."
Austria's Der Standard captured the cynical tone that typified much of the world's coverage of the new Mars efforts: "A national mission to a faraway place where glory awaits and no rebel movement lurks will help Americans forget about the continuing problems in Iraq and portray the president as a peaceful visionary." (German translation courtesy of BBC Monitoring.)
Some papers were just plain mean. Britain's Guardian documented Mars' irrelevance to everyone but red rock aficionados and then turned its biting sarcasm directly at Bush: "Take-off is planned for the year 2020, or later if they let Dubya do the final countdown from 10 to lift-off."
But not everybody wanted in on the Mars-bashing game. The Times of India reported on the progress of India's own space program, which "may be trailing behind on planetary missions, thanks to resource constraints" but is poised to launch an impressive effort in 2008. Several Indian space researchers vouched for the value of a mission to Mars, including one who said, "[T]he chances of [finding life as we now know it] on smaller planets is high. It's only a question of time before we get definitive evidence."
Perhaps because India is so intrigued by the last frontier of space, the ToI pulled out the stops to examine the prospects of Martian exploration. For instance, did you know that a day on Mars is 24 hours and 39 minutes, and a Martian year lasts 669 days? Or that for every 50 pounds a person weighs on Earth, he'll weigh just 19 pounds on Mars?
The Indian enthusiasm is refreshing in a sea of global media cynicism. If not for them, how would we know that some of those famous red rocks have been named after cartoon characters—including Scooby Doo and Barnacle Bill—or that Total Recall is just one of 20 Hollywood films that have featured Mars and Martians? If that isn't enough to make you want to sign up for the six-month journey to the red planet, maybe nothing is.