The Review of U.S. Human Space Flight Plans Committee has just released a summary of their report. This “Augustine” report (named after chairman Norm Augustine, former CEO of Lockheed, not St. Augustine, which might have made for more entertaining reading) discusses the future of US manned space exploration. The full report should arrive within the month.
The summary makes one critical point: NASA is woefully underfunded to accomplish its stated goals (Let’s go to the Moon and Mars and beyond!). The committee’s basic message is that, under the current funding profile, NASA can barely retire the space shuttles and the International Space Station. Any ambitious manned space exploration plans will have to be delayed by a minimum of 15-20 years (Bush wanted us to be playing soccer on the Moon by 2020). The committee says an additional $3 billion/year for ten years is required to have a viable manned exploration program, on top of the roughly $10 billion/year currently being spent (for reference, NASA science programs weigh in at under $5 billion/year). As far as space exploration is concerned, the current trajectory isn’t going to get us anywhere.
One interesting aspect of this report is the absence of science. Out of 12 pages, science is mentioned twice. In the third line of the report, we are advised that spaceflight “really is rocket science”. Cute. Towards the end of the introduction, we are told “Human exploration can contribute appropriately to the expansion of scientific knowledge”. The emphasis is theirs, not mine. Perhaps they’re feeling a little defensive? As well they should. From what I can tell, nobody has articulated a compelling scientific case for human beings to go beyond low-Earth orbit. Or even leave Earth, for that matter. From a scientific perspective, the International Space Station has been an unbelievably colossal waste of money. As the Economist tells us, “the useful science that has been done on board could be written up on the back of a postage stamp.” (Sam Ting’s AMS would be an exception. But this is unlikely to have been the most cost-effective way to go about this experiment.) The space shuttle program, on the other hand, has been instrumental in producing amazing science, epitomized by the launching and servicing of the Hubble Space Telescope. Given the immense cost of the shuttle program, however, the science return on investment remains fairly slim. How many space telescopes could have been built and launched by conventional rockets, for the cost of all that shuttle development?
It could be argued that the manned space program is not about science at all. It’s about slipping the surly bonds of Earth and fulfilling our “natural destiny”. There is certainly something compelling about this, although I would argue that the current plans are ludicrously expensive and overly ambitious. My main concern is that the public misses the distinction: NASA sometimes appears to conflate human exploration and basic research. When we talk about sending humans to the Moon or Mars, we’re not talking about scientific exploration. If science is your goal, you send unmanned probes and satellites, at a tiny fraction of the cost. These missions carry no risk to human life, and considerably larger scientific payoff.
Like any science fiction fan, I’m intrigued by the idea of human colonies on the Moon and Mars and beyond. But if these long-term aspirations suck the oxygen out of the room for basic science, humanity on the whole loses out.