News and Commentary on Space
Yale Astronomer Sabatino Sofia (who?) weighs in on the Moon-Mars plans.
YH: What problems do you see with the proposed manned missions to the Moon and Mars recently proposed by the president?
SS: During the presidency of Bush’s father, he also proposed a manned mission to Mars. In fact, Reagan had done the same a few years before. When they tried to budget what it would cost, they came up to $300-400 billion. Of course, this money did not come along, and nothing significant came out of it. Essentially, they started a small office in NASA headquarters to study the mission, produced a few studies, and one or two years later it was quietly shut down. I don’t expect anything different to happen now.
I can understand the skepticism about this time around being any different, but (yet again) this skepticism seems to be based in part on the received wisdom of the $400B pricetag.
Man…people have latched onto that “factoid” like they’ve latched on to the “imminent threat” B.S. — like blood-crazed pit-bulls latching onto a slab of raw meat, blissfully unaware that what they’ve clamped their jaws on is something less than the meat that it seems to be.
Why does everyone say that when Kennedy came with [his] vision of going to the Moon that it did flourish and had success, while this one [the trip to Mars] doesn’t? Indeed it was visionary, challenging, and this played a role, but it was part of our national defense. With the Cold War going on, the perception of an outstanding scientific and technological capability in the U.S. was a significant deterrent to a potential enemy.
True. And that is why no attempt to produce a “second Apollo” has ever succeeded — Apollo was the product of a unique set of historical circumstances. But this doesn’t apply to the Bush plan, which so far does not look like an all-out, blank-check drive to get to the Moon and then Mars. It’s an almost boringly methodical, success-driven approach, more like a business development strategy than a Grand ProgramTM.
At that time, the NASA budget at the peak of the Apollo program was two and a half percent of the national budget. In current dollars that would be close to $50 billion; the current NASA budget is only about $14 billion. A lot of that is spoken for with the shuttle program and with the $2 billion or more annual expense for the space station. Not much is left to tackle new major initiatives.
Funny, I keep seeing a $100B current-dollars figure cited for the total cost of the Apollo program…where does he get $50B per year?
And he totally misses the boat with the rest of that excerpt — the big spending on the new plan doesn’t come until after our commitments to Shuttle and ISS end, freeing up all that money within NASA’s current funding levels. The money for implementing this “major new intiative” is, by and large, going to come from the money that would have been spent unproductively on ISS and Shuttle. Additional funding may be needed down the road, it’s true, but it is difficult to imagine what the President has proposed costing anywhere near $50B per year.
There are the following problems with the proposed initiative. First, the money offered is totally inadequate to carry out the task.
Says you…with a modicum of discipline and a clear goal to focus on, there’s no reason it needs to cost an arm and a leg. More than it needs to, perhaps, NASA being a government agency, but there is nothing fundamentally bankrupting about the plan as outlined to-date.
If an adequate budget were offered, I’m not sure the country, at this particular juncture, with the enormous run-away deficits, could afford another $400 to $500 billion for the next five or 10 years.
AAAARGH!!! There’s that number again!!!
YH: What comes after Mars as NASA’s next big project?
SS: The time will come when the technology will be advanced where a manned trip to Mars would not be totally outside the imaginable.
“Yes, it’s true…if we just continue to circle the Earth in our LEO holding-pattern, someday, a miracle will occur, and warp-drive or wormholes or interplanetary stepping disks or commercial-grade astral projection will spontaneously spring into existence. Why, we would be foolish to expend any money or effort on developing now what the future will bring to us for free!”
Probably exploring the solar system beyond Mars with manned missions is outside the scope of anything currently imaginable.
Oh, I don’t know about that. If you have Mars as a jumping-off point, missions further out (manned or otherwise) become a great deal more imaginable…especially when you’ve already learned the tricks of crewed interplanetary travel by venturing to Mars in the first place.
For example, the next planet beyond Mars is Jupiter, which is…not a place to visit.
Outside of manned missions, the next scientific mission that I can foresee is a sample return [i.e. another robotic] mission to Mars. This would allow us to get a much better understanding of the geology of Mars that we can get without the ability to study Martian samples in terrestrial laboratories. It turns out that we can do most of the planetary science without manned missions.
Let’s see…We need a sample return mission because we can study Martian samples better here on Earth, but sending humans to where such samples can be obtained in great abundance at a moment’s notice from their native context is a bad idea? It’s smarter to spend $1.5B per shot to retrieve a few pounds of material from one or a few sites, than to spend $20-40B to send humans to where they can examine as many pounds of samples as they can handle, from many far-flung sites, day after day, for a year and a half?
I don’t get it. What do astronomers have against manned space exploration? Is it really just that they see it as siphoning funds away from buying ever-bigger telescopes?
The clearest example was the plan to send men to Mars. This wasn’t a real policy proposal.
The whole thing was never even meant to happen. It was supposed to be a campaign sound bite to give a running start to the State of the Union roll-out and a bullet point for the president’s onward-and-upward-with-optimism reelection theme.
See, apparently he doesn’t get the point that I’ve been harping on here for the past three weeks: retirement of the Orbiter fleet is the one thing in this whole policy that Bush can assure before the end of a putative second term, and the one element of his plan that he seemed the most certain of during his speech on January 14.
The phrase I’ve been looking for all this time is “precipitating a crisis”. The one thing that sets the Bush policy apart from that of his father or any number of other “NASA visions” of the past is that this one sets in motion a chain of events which will force the agency to change instead of continuing on with the untenable status quo. It’s such a subtle point that most pundits outside of space circles seem to have overlooked it in their breathless rush to criticize the Bush policy’s much more obvious and fundamental flaw: the fact that it was proposed by President Bush.
Had this been a serious proposal, it would have required a vast national effort costing, in all likelihood, hundreds of billions of dollars.
No. Not yet, anyway, and there’s no real reason it must do so. Like so many others, Marshall here is basing his opinion on little more than received wisdom: the Bush 41 Moon/Mars proposal (a.k.a. “the 90-Day Report”) came with a sticker price of $400B+, therefore, all Moon or Mars proposals must cost that much or more. But none of the pundits repeating that claim appear to be aware of the politics behind the $400B figure — namely, NASA threw in all sorts of nice-to-haves and gee-whiz science-fair elements, either due to the expectation of Apollo-style blank check funding or the desire to kill the initiative in favor of Space Station by making it so expensive as to be DOA in Congress (it depends on whose interpretation you read).
Yet when it didn’t strike a chord with voters or the Sunday shows, it got tossed aside without a second thought.
Funny — NASA appears to be taking the new policy seriously, or is at least doing more than sitting some Deputy Assistant Vice-Undersecretary in a broom closet with few blank viewgraph sheets and a box of Crayolas: NASA Announces New Headquarters Management Alignment:
In a move designed to align the agency with the new exploration agenda outlined yesterday by President George W. Bush, NASA Deputy Administrator Frederick D. Gregory announced a comprehensive restructuring of the offices within Headquarters in Washington.
NASA Begins New Exploration Journey With FY 2005 Budget
To achieve these goals, NASA will plan and implement an integrated, long-term robotic and human exploration program structured with measurable milestones. NASA will execute the plan using the best available resources, accumulated experience and technology.
Sounds to me like Josh Marshall doesn’t really know much about space policy. But hey, why let that stand in the way of taking a rhetorical poke at the President?
The way the personal animosity towards Bush is driving the opposition to and ridicule of this new policy, I have to wonder how long it will be before the anti-Bush crowd starts calling him “President Space Cadet” and (as someone at Transterrestrial Musings suggested) demanding the immediate end to the space program simply to spite the “Smirking Chimp”.
A young girl sets out to prove herself by resolving a long-forgotten mystery. But when she gets close to the truth, what she thought was a harmless adventure becomes a threat to the future of the independent commercial settlements on Mars.