Whither NASA: the Moon? Mars? Science?

By Daniel Holz | September 13, 2009 10:09 pm

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!).mars geologist studying a rock 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.

  • http://tristram.squarespace.com Tristram Brelstaff

    “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.”

    The only compelling scientific case for humans in low-Earth orbit is to repair the HST!

  • John

    That is not a compelling case. Instead of sending astronauts to repair the HST, we can launch a new one.

    The basic problem is that there are not any compelling missions for the manned space program. Even sending people to Mars—yes, it would be a great challenge, but fundamentally it is unimaginative. What do the astronauts do when they get there? Probably, they’ll start hitting golf balls. We have already been to the moon and know that it is empty. The American public is often derided, but they do have some common sense.

    Going to an asteroid would make for a better story, I think, but probably the manned space program should just be left to the commercial companies. They are doing inspirational things for manned spaceflight right now, unlike NASA.

  • tacitus

    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.

    Nice word-smithing Daniel. :-)

    I’m torn. As an armchair space nut, there was nothing more thrilling that seeing the HST repair mission playing out live on TV this summer. It was beyond cool and, of course, any manned missions to the Moon and Mar would be must-see-TV for millions around the world. (Hey, maybe NASA should sell the world-exclusive TV rights to NBC to raise a few a billion.. on second thoughts, maybe not.)

    I get the point about the science that would be left undone in the meantime. However, surely installing a Lunar Base at one of the Moon’s poles isn’t a total waste from the scientific POV. First there is still science involved in getting us there. Sure, it’s not astronomy or cosmology, but we sure learned a lot of science when the Apollo missions were being designed and developed. (Velcro anyone?). And astronomers will be biting off NASA’s hand to get a suite of telescopes installed in one of the perpetually dark craters within a short (bouncy) stroll of the base.

    Yeah, I understand that cost of the infrastructure required to get one lunar telescope installed would probably pay for the launching of a fleet of space interferometers into the outer solar system, but it’s not as though it would be a complete loss as far as science goes.

    But in the end, it’s about priorities. A hundred years from now, we will likely have both a permanent base on the Moon and much greater knowledge of the Universe past and present. So really, this debate is about shorter-term priorities. Scientists want money spent on programs that will give returns in their fields before they are put out to pasture or, at the very least, within their lifetimes. So astronomers, cosmologists, and planetary scientists are obviously going to be upset if going back to the moon means postponing unmanned space missions for a decade or more. But how many “rocket scientists” and those in related fields (materials, propulsion, medical, etc.) would be overjoyed to hear the moon missions were a go? Probably just as many, since there is still plenty of science to be done.

    I suspect our return to the Moon will be delayed indefinitely. Given the tight budgets and deficits to the horizon, I doubt Congress has the stomach for pumping the necessary extra cash into NASA. Surprisingly this seems to be an unpopular idea amongst right-wing conservatives who seem to stray wildly off their anti-big government message when visions of big rockets shooting off into space fill their eyes. I wonder if they’re compensating for something?

  • tacitus

    The basic problem is that there are not any compelling missions for the manned space program. Even sending people to Mars—yes, it would be a great challenge, but fundamentally it is unimaginative. What do the astronauts do when they get there? Probably, they’ll start hitting golf balls.

    I think an afternoon in the company of Steve Squyres is in order to set you straight. It may not be as sexy as the pretty pictures sent back from Hubble, but there are many lifetimes worth of geological and atmospheric sciences waiting for us on Mars, for starters. But I’m sure they would be happy to work on their golf game at the weekends. Just think how far your drives would go! Sweet!! We could all pretend to be Tiger Woods.

  • Just Learning

    I’ll tell you right now that the single biggest obstacle against NASA in obtaining funds is the ridiculous Kumbaya culture that’s overtaken its public discourse over the last 30 years. When the culture was driven by performance based metrics and the winner take all mentality, it was much more effective in advocating for funds.

  • chuko

    I share your concern over the conflation of the science and exploratory aspects of the space program. However, I’m not sure I agree with you about robots necessarily being more cost effective than humans for space science.

    It’s certainly cheaper, but human crews may give more science for the buck. Robots are extremely limited in their speed, senses, flexibility, and adaptability compared to a person. Despite the moon being a pretty barren place, the Apollo missions brought back much more material and data than robots and probes have. The case for Mars is stronger with the significant communication lag (~30 min), and its more complicated atmosphere and geology. Remember too that robots are much more effective with humans nearby to control them directly without lag, and to service them. The current (very successful) Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, have had problems like dust on their solar panels, getting stuck in the soft dirt, a broken wheel, and getting stuck on a sand dune for six weeks. All of these problems would be trivial for a human crew to fix.

  • Metre

    @TACITUS #3

    NASA did not invent velcro (nor teflon) – velcro was invented in 1955 by a swiss engineer. Anyway, such accomplishments come under the heading of engineering, not science. Much engineering knowledge is always gained from manned missions but not so much science.

    Even the military is taking the humans out of the equation. Unmanned air vehicles now perform many missions previously done by humans for less money and without putting a human in harm’s way.

  • Dee

    Human spaceflight is engineering!

    Aerospace engineering, to be precise. Automotive engineers design cars (for passengers and cargo), aeronautical engineers design planes (for passengers and cargo), and aerospace engineers design rockets and spacecraft, again, for passengers and cargo.

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    Couldn’t agree more. These days the only rationale I’m seeing that appears to have any political traction is “national prestige”. This should be read as: So the Chinese don’t make us look like a second-rate power. To this I would answer: We may have missed the boat on such self-inflation already, space program or no. Assuming we haven’t, a waste of money is a waste of money. If the Chinese want to blow a few hundred bil. reverse-engineering Apollo to discover, like we did, that watching a couple guys trundle around on the Moon dropping feathers gets old remarkably fast, well, have at it, PRC.

  • http://vacua.blogspot.com Jim Harrison

    Sending men into space is simply the modern version of building pyramids. It is a religious exercise. Until and unless physics finds some loophole in the cosmic speed limit, we have no future whatsoever in space.

  • amphiox

    chuko #6: “The current (very successful) Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, have had problems like dust on their solar panels, getting stuck in the soft dirt, a broken wheel, and getting stuck on a sand dune for six weeks. All of these problems would be trivial for a human crew to fix.”

    All true, but for the cost of sending a single manned mission to mars, you could just abandon your rover when it got stuck or broke or got too much dust on its solar panels, build and send another, 100 times over. Or you could send a platoon of several hundred rovers all at once. Or you could use that money to invest in AI and robotics and develop a robot capable of cleaning its solar panels, extracting itself from sand dunes, and apply more independent real-time judgement to its scientific endeavors.

    It really always boils down to that. One manned mission can always be envisioned to produce more science compared to any particular robotic mission, but the cost and risk is several orders of magnitude greater. (From a science perspective, if you lose an astronaut-scientist on the mission, you not only lose the mission, you lose all the potential science that individual may produce for the remainder of his/her career, and all the influence on future generations of scientists and science students that he/she may go on to have).

    When it comes down to manned space exploration, there really is only one goal that justifies it – that is to put people into space, ultimately to live and work there routinely. In short, to colonize space. The ultimate goal here being survival of the species in the long term – so that we are not all tied to the fate of a single fragile planet.

    Once we get the people up there, doing all the things that people routinely do in the process of living their lives, the science will follow automatically. Don’t send up the people just to do some science – that will never be sustainable. Send the people up first, get them established, and then send up some science for the people already up there to do.

  • Chrysoprase

    If abandoning manned spaceflight for a decade or three means more and better space probes, unmanned rovers, and space telescopes, then I’m all for it. Sure sending people into space is romantic and exciting, but as the previous poster said, until we can actually colonize space it’s just a waste of resources that could go toward advancing science and making colonization more of a possiblity in the future. The only manned mission I’ve heard proposed that seemed even mildly worthwhile (apart from colonization) was mining of near earth asteroids, because that could potentially turn a profit.

    On the other hand, if space tourism ever becomes affordable to your average person, I’ll be right there with an open checkbook and a huge grin on my face. Since this seems to be in the domain of private enterprise, let’s leave putting people in space to them and let NASA continue to produce amazing results with unmanned missions.

  • Montag

    While I agree with the protests against conflating manned spaceflight with science, I think that it is still important. How are we to get to a level where colonization is possible without pushing for it? You can’t simply say “Well, now we’re ready to start colonizing the moon, so let’s go!” There are lots of intervening steps that we can get started with and can teach us a lot about the process. While this may not fall under the purview of science, NASA’s goal is to do more than advance scientific knowledge (it was founded for space exploration, after all). Science is not the only important factor here.

  • Mike

    @5 we should send tiger woods to mars just to see how far he could hit it there.

    -nods-

  • Nameless

    “Until and unless physics finds some loophole in the cosmic speed limit, we have no future whatsoever in space.”

    Cosmic speed limits don’t keep us from colonizing Moon and Mars. And that’s something we should do, to expand our ability to maintain and expand self-sustaining colonies. Once we put a human colony on the Moon, it can be maintained and expanded relatively cheaply using native materials.

    But there really is something that we do wrong.

    Why is it so incredibly expensive to send a manned mission on Mars? Simply because humans are heavy and their support infrastructure is even heavier, and we lack efficient means of placing heavy objects into low Earth orbit. So, the cost of Mars rover program may be 75% support and engineering, and the cost of Mars colony program is 98% propulsion. And it’s almost obvious that there’s room for improvement there, because you can easily do the math – if you could send objects into low Earth orbit using some kind of electric elevator or magnetic gun, converting electricity into kinetic & potential energy with good efficiency, your lower bound on cost would be literally tens of dollars per kilogram (as opposed to current going rates of $5,000 to $10,000 per kg).

    So maybe we should take those 50 billion needed to build lots and lots of 1950’s-style chemical rockets, and invest them into research on new means of space travel.

  • Ijon Tichy

    Sending humans out into space is part of a strategy for securing our long-term survival and health. This involves lunar and Mars bases, nuclear propulsion (thermal or electric), space habitats such as the Stanford torus, advanced nuclear reactors (e.g. 4th generation fission, or fusion), deep-sea mining, asteroid mining, synthetic meat, and so on. Unfortunately, the Gaia worshippers are winning public hearts (not minds, there’s little thinking involved here). Growth, exploration and adventure are bad words now. The younger generation has nothing to inspire them any more. It is religion (standard or nature-adoring) that will keep us Earthbound, subjecting civilisation to such threats as catastrophic climate change, energy/resource starvation, and war.

  • tacitus

    @15: Yes — if we could get manned missions into orbit cheaply and safely, this debate would be all but over. Unfortunately the scientific and engineering breakthroughs are barely visible on the horizon as yet, which means there isn’t much chance of it happening within the next 25 years or more.

    Of course, the other factor that drives up the cost is the safety margins. In this day and age, it’s simply not possible to send someone to the Mars unless there’s at least a, what, 90%/95% chance of them returning home safely. That’s despite there being no end of qualified volunteers who would happily accept much less favorable odds. No doubt even the safety margins in force during the Apollo missions would be wholly unacceptable today.

    Not saying that’s unreasonable — the calculation would chance the instant there was a military objective involved — it’s just reality.

  • tacitus

    Unfortunately, the Gaia worshipers are winning public hearts (not minds, there’s little thinking involved here).

    Not sure what you’re getting at here. There is nothing like a Gaia-worshiping movement says we should not explore beyond Earth. There are plenty of people who say that we should spend the money it would cost to expand into space on finding solutions to all those problems you list, but that is a perfectly rational and reasonable position to take, and has little to do with worshiping anything.

  • Nameless

    “Unfortunately the scientific and engineering breakthroughs are barely visible on the horizon as yet, which means there isn’t much chance of it happening within the next 25 years or more.”

    Who’s to say what could or could not be possible, if NASA were to divert those additional billions towards basic research into new propulsion methods instead of Ares V behemoth?

  • http://CivilityPlease john

    The NASA budget is 1/75th of the Defense budget – or about 5 days of spending for our military endeavors. Question: Which expenditure will yield a more profound advancement of the human race? Think about it. Take all the time you wish.

    People in the US might feel a bit differently when CNN picks up the Chinese TV feed from the surface of the moon as they plant the Red flag of China on the moon and proclaim a victory for Communism and peace loving workers of the world. By all accounts this should happen in less than 10 years.

    That event will be the dramatic conclusion of the long, sad toboggan ride to mediocrity this country has experienced for the past 25 years, From a great world power to a bankrupt, broken old tin pot pseudo democracy made up of hand wringing, screeching lunatics on the right, blind, half-wit fools on the left, and a broke, demoralized middle class trying to maintain some sort of dignity while finding themselves mired in the worlds newest third world county.

    You know, Europe is looking better and better these days…

  • http://www.firmament-chaos.com C.S. DaGrossa

    If NASA and the entire academic institution would open their minds for five minutes (or in the case of this recent radio interview about an hour) they would realize they have so much right in front of them that remains undiscovered and one of Norm Augustine’s own, a former Lockheed astrophyscist, that has an incredible body of work that could advance the cause – http://gordoncomstock.com/audio/227_Ackerman.mp3

    Is anyone out there open to hear it?

  • nasacontractor

    Perhaps if NASA didn’t waste billions on pet projects, they could go somewhere. For starters, cancel LDCM. I worked on that project for two years and personally witnessed over $100 million wasted with nothing in return. I wish I could say more…

  • Tod R. Lauer

    I know full well the issues of what it takes to support humans in space to do science verus, what unmanned probes require, having spent the last six years attempting to define one of the latter…

    However…

    I disagree very much with attempts to divine alternative histories of what we might have done with the money spent on successful human-supported space science in the cases where it has been deeply successful. I very much doubt, under any circumstances that we would have flown a fleet of non-servicible telescopes of Hubble caliber over the same time span that we have operated Hubble now, nor would we have been in any thing like the position that we were in 1990 with respect to getting on our feet again after the spherical aberration fiasco. The servicing of Hubble, in fact has redefined the mission many times. It would have required a profoundly serious and dedicated effort to have mounted multiple missions to obtain anything like the returns from Hubble that we have had with the servicing of the 1990-launched version.

    One can speculate all one wants about alternative histories, but without actually running the experiment, such speculations should not be used to diminish or denigrate the frankly successful history that did play out…

  • Ryan V.

    To Quote the Science Fiction series Babylon 5, which stated it in far better words then I could.

    “Mary Ann Cramer: Is it worth it? Should we just pull back? Forget the whole thing as a bad idea, and take care of our own problems, at home.

    Sinclair: No. We have to stay here. And there’s a simple reason why. Ask ten different scientists about the environment, population control, genetics, and you’ll get ten different answers, but there’s one thing every scientist on the planet agrees on. Whether it happens in a hundred years or a thousand years or a million years, eventually our Sun will grow cold and go out. When that happens, it won’t just take us. It’ll take Marilyn Monroe, and Lao-Tzu, and Einstein, and Morobuto, and Buddy Holly, and Aristophanes…[and] all of this…all of this…was for nothing. Unless we go to the stars.”

    To me, this isn’t just about what we can accomplish right now, what we can bring back this instant (even though we can in fact do a lot). What we are doing when we send people into space is doing more then kicking up moon dust, or being a symbol of how much cooler we are then the Soviet Union. It’s about the long-term survival of our entire species. When ancient peoples first built ships to sail the waters, they couldn’t go to America, nor did they try. If they had they would have either died en route or been able to do little but kick up dust. Over THOUSANDS of years, ships evolved, until we were able to go out and discover the Americas, benefit from the resources. If we don’t try, if we sit here and scratch our heads trying to figure out how to build mars colonies without trying to reach mars, what have we accomplished? We have to give it a shot, because literally, at some point, the survival of the human race as a whole is on the line.

    Yes, I have a tendency to think too long-term in everything, but panicking at the last minute because earth is REALLY unable to support us anymore seems like a bad idea in general. We can spend billions blowing stuff up in Iraq, but not to help insure the survival of our species. We’re geniuses aren’t we?

  • http://danielholz.com daniel

    Tod, point taken. Hubble is amazing, and the space shuttle was instrumental in its success. But it’s certainly suggestive that Hubble’s successor will be launched by rocket, and will definitely not be serviceable (since it’ll be at L2). Nonetheless, if the money isn’t spent on space colonization, that doesn’t mean that it will be spent on space science. My concern is when space exploration gets presented as space science–the latter can be done much more cost effectively without the former (all else being equal). It’s hard to see how NASA will accomplish any of its manned missions without cutting everything else to the bone. There will no doubt be a temptation to claim that a mission back to the Moon is “science”, and then cut the real science out of the budget.

  • http://www.bootstrapnow.com Darrell Wingerak

    Until we move beyond circa 1940’s style rockets, space exploration needs to remain the purview of unmanned vehicles. Even earth geosynchronous orbit with manned crews is met with a sigh of relief when it works. Mars exploration by living men/women? Be serious. The risks far outweigh the scientific gains, which by all measures would be limited.

  • chris

    Hey, why do we allow people climb the Mount Everest? it’s such a waste of resources. we could install a webcam there – even one with a spectrometer. and a large automated weather station. the scientific return for the buck would be immensely bigger.

    yeah, going to mars is arguably the modern form of building pyramids. and we all agree, that pyramids are just a useless pile of rubble that nobody in their right mind would pay any attention to, correct?

    let’s be serious, let’s talk bussiness. let imagination not get into our way. after all, what are we humans made for than grinding away our daily affairs?

    oh, btw: the report i find very sensible. it clearly states that without a budget human spaceflight should better be abandoned. and also it gives the ares 1/5 concept a well deserved bashing. what else did you expect from a commission about the future of human spaceflight?

  • http://None Bobby

    I believe we need to look at the much larger picture here; human’s need to expand and grow as a species. The desire of our ancestors to sail to new worlds is mirrored by our own desire to travel to distant planets. The true nature of humanity is to expand. Human civilization should ultimately be spread as wide as possible such that we can ensure a good life style for all, and to maximize the survival of the race. This way we will not be caught with our metaphorical pants down when the need arises to vacate this planet. We will not be here forever. Yes, this is something we can ask future generations to act on, but how do we know they will not follow our example of sitting idly on our hands. I say go to Mars! Let us find new and great ways reaching out to every part of the heavens as our species has been dreaming of doing since the days of Galileo.

  • Metre

    @Bobby #28

    The explorers of old were motivated by profit, not from any “because it’s there” sense of adventure. They were searching for easy routes to the orient to gain a competitive advantage over other countries. Colonization was not the goal, at least not initially (but even colonization was profit-oriented). If manned space flight had such a profit motive, we’d probably be doing it. But so far, it’s money in, no money out.

    From all accounts, the sun will be a reliable source of light and heat for another few billion years so I don’t think we need to hurry. But I do agree that eventually humans need to venture beyond earth, so we do need to continue research into more efficient and cost-effective ways to do it. But I don’t see the need to spend a large percentage of the national budget to go to Mars “just because we can”.

  • Tod R. Lauer

    Dear Daniel,

    I agree with most of what you say. It is indeed a false belief of many that money taken from human spaceflight will neatly show up in the science column. Your citation of JWST as a non-serviceable probe, however, raises many interesting issues. All on its own, the development of JWST has taken much time and large sums of money. Indeed, while JWST is a true space telescope, unlike HST, which at least bears a resemblance to a ground telescope with a spacecraft wrapped around it, I see no great relative economies in its development. If it fails on launch, that will be that – we will not quickly bang together another one and pat ourselves on the back that we could do this by avoiding the burden of making it serviceable. I should note that shortly before Lyman Spitzer passed away, he was very much engaged in trying to make JWST L2 serviceable. Indeed, given the investment that we are making in science at L2, it’s a pity that we have not been able to do this in parallel with a human capability there, although there have been no shortage of advocates for this.

    I cannot resist one further reflection on JWST. It is named after James Webb, without dispute the greatest of all the NASA admins. I have heard him dismissed by astronomers born after Apollo as “some NASA bean counter.” In fact it was Webb – on his own! – who realized that NASA should strongly support space science. He actively reached out to the astronomical community, who in the early 60s were not thinking of NASA as a source of support. Webb was an advocate of a balanced program in which space science rode along with and benefited from human spaceflight. Perhaps we could flourish in some future configuration in which the two are cleanly divorced, but we should not forget how we got to where we are today.

  • lemuel pitkin

    This is absolutely right. It’s heartbreaking how much of NASA’s resources are used up by these stunts.

    Even for us science fiction fans, there is far more payoff from unmanned missions. Measured strictly in terms of coolness, does anyone really think a manned mission to Mars beats a space telescope capable of direct observations of extrasolar planets?

    We could well have direct evidence of alien life, even civilizations, within our lifetime — but not if the “pro-space exploration” people get their way.

  • http://www.davidnataf.com David Nataf

    I don’t know how anyone could argue that the money taken from human spaceflight would show up in space science.

    More likely, space science funding would be cut to the level of oceanography. There would be no Fermi, no HST, no Spitzer, no JWST, no Kepler, etc. Without manned flight NASA’s funding would go to zero.

  • PTMR

    NASA should cancel human exploration and fund research into alternative, cheaper ways of getting man into orbit.

    I think the answer is nanotechnology. We have carbon nanotubes which are great but a bit too short to reach the orbit. What we need are nanomachines capable of sorting and “welding” nanotubes together so they can be woven into cables of arbitrary length. This is certainly not easy but I’m pretty sure it’s doable within a 10 year time frame.

  • coolstar

    Tod has his facts more or less straight but his causality wrong on the HST. HST was made to be serviceable to give the Shuttle someplace to go and something to do before the ISS was launched, primarily. I agree that the HST has been the single most successful scientific instrument ever built, but that doesn’t mean doing it the way it was done was the correct way. (thanks for the info on James Webb, but I still think great instruments should be named after great scientists or the people who paid for them…….). No one will tell you the total COST of HST over it’s lifetime, but it has to be in the range of $20 billion in current dollars (point of reference, Kepler will probably cost about $700 million or so over its working life). (few non-astronomers know that one gets, what, $100K plus for every Hubble proposal approved?). So, call that 20 REALLY good space telescopes, with maybe half of them still working and the way HST was done doesn’t look so good anymore. And in this alternative history, perhaps no shuttle catastrophes …..(yes, one can argue it could have been built anyway, but there’s no way to know, obviously). In this universe, losing space telescope missions, such as we now do on Mars missions occasionally, is part of the cost of doing business.

    I have no problem with Orion going to L2, which is easily within its capabilities, but Orion can’t be JUSTIFIED by this consideration. Add in sample and return mission to NEOs and the start of learning how to bootstrap our way out of LEO, and I’d vote for it.

  • lemuel pitkin

    I don’t know how anyone could argue that the money taken from human spaceflight would show up in space science.

    Sure,not dollar for dollar, but 60 or 70 or 80 cents on the dollar, absolutely. After all, it’s the same agency doing both, no?

  • The Real Deal

    Whatever the funding, NASA has a bigger problem – competency. NASA no longer has the competency to design and build large launchers for the Moon or Mars manned missions. Go ask NASA to redo the Apollo missions using today’s knowhow, cost no object. They will fail.

  • Jesse M.

    I think expanding humanity into space is a good idea in the long term, but there’s no good reason to put lots of money into it in the short term when there’ll probably be much cheaper options in a century or two, like space elevators to get us into orbit more easily or self-replicating mining and construction robots to build colonies on other planets that would be waiting for us when we arrive.

  • http://popast.nu Robert Cumming

    If it was all about science, the refurbished HST would publish about one three-colour image a year and we’d all be having trouble getting people excited about UV spectra.

    But seriously: What does the research say about space exploration and public perceptions of science? My guess is that a large majority of people – politicians too, probably – sort astronomy, space science and manned spaceflight in the same box. Marked ‘SPACE’. Maybe that’s NASA’s fault, of course, but I don’t think that can be the whole story.

  • Count Iblis

    One interesting aspect of this report is the absence of science. Out of 12 pages, science is mentioned twice.

    They’re preparing the scientific report, see here.

  • http://lablemming.blogspot.com/ Lab Lemming

    Aren’t the current LCROSS and LRO missions being funded by exploration, and not science?

  • Martin E.

    @29
    Yup, greed is a great motivator. If there were something out in space worth billions back on Earth (and not too massive), there would be a Gold Rush by private investors. Cost to orbit would plummet. [It doesn’t have to be expensive. The energy requirements are only like flying a 747 from the US to Australia; of course, we don’t throw the 747 away every time we take a trip.]

    Luckily, there IS something worth bringing back: Platinum. Take one small asteroid of the right type, refine out the platinum and you have some $30B worth back on Earth. Check out http://spacewealth.org/

    There’s an awful lot of steps to take to find the right few asteroids, but they are all now feasible.
    The right role for NASA is to act as an enabler for space resource development, just as the US Government did opening up the West after the Civil War.

    Mining asteroids will be robotic, at first. But once a large enough infrastructure has built up, it will need people to service it efficiently, and we’ll be back in space and have the capability to go to Mars cheaply.

  • Stinky Pete

    Has any explorer ever set out with “science” as their goal? Ever? To EXPLORE is to do just that. Scientific and technological advances will emerge as a by-product of the process. Man sees mountain, man climbs mountain. Man sees the Moon, man goes to the moon. Man sees Mars…

  • http://ageofwebdesign.com/p/2/hermelinda web

    Exploration is one of the greatest things we have as human beings, since the dawn of time we been exploring and expanding. Now that we have colonized every corner of this fragile and frail blue marble, it is time to go elsewhere. I know the spirit of exploration still lives on. However I doubt that the Americans will be the great space explorers. China is starting a space program, and so are so many other countries. The one thing I think that we forget when we look at the cost of these things is the payoff. The Apollo missions led to several advancements in wireless technology. Going to Mars would only help us to develop a more sustainable way of survival. So what if it costs billions of dollars. Give it a decade and the payoffs would be huge. We should at least be returning to the moon.

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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Daniel Holz

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