President Bush has indicated a desire to rejuvenate Americas
mission in space, but is his plan of manned flights to Mars
destined to be wide of the mark and short of the goal?
I grow up to be president, I want to become an astronaut.
That seemed to be the underlying message last month when President
Bush promised us the moon, Mars and possibly the stars, all
for the low, low price of just $1 billion a year over NASA’s
current budget. His plan to colonize the moon and beyond is
tall on concept and short on details. All that was missing
was an appearance by Buzz Lightyear.
For NASA it signaled an abrupt change in priorities: A manned
mission to the moon by 2015. A permanent lunar base by 2020.
And, if you kids behave yourselves, a vacation to Mars someday.
But the price for getting there might be far too high. By
ignoring the true costs for manned space exploration, an ill-conceived
plan to revamp NASA’s mission could further damage our efforts
to explore the frontiers of space.
Bush’s plan is practically budget- neutral for the first five
years. It would add only an extra $1 billion to NASA’s budget.
The space agency has to come up with the extra $11 billion
by re-allocating money from other projects.
The first casualty appears to be the Hubble telescope, which
stands to have its life cut short by four or five years. NASA
announced last month that it decided to scrub future shuttle
flights to maintain it. And this even though NASA’s chief
scientist, Dr. John M. Grunsfeld, described the Hubble as
“the best marriage of human spaceflight and science.” Since
its launch in 1990, the space telescope has brought us awe-inspiring
images and offered scientists a revealing glimpse into the
composition and origins of our universe.
Not any longer. Without another shuttle flight for maintenance,
the telescope will probably die in orbit in 2007 and drop
in the ocean shortly thereafter. A replacement telescope wouldn’t
reach orbit until 2011.
Other programs are also vulnerable as tight resources get
shifted to the new mission. NASA’s Earth science and aeronautical
research programs are threatened, as are experiments aboard
the International Space Station in material sciences, physics
and chemistry. All of this is basic science, the stuff from
which technological innovation and scientific knowledge emerge.
In fairness to the current administration, the Clinton years
didn’t do many favors for NASA either. The space agency’s
mantra during the 1990s was “faster, cheaper, better,” a slogan
intended to encourage a streamlined bureaucracy and a push
to build the best product at the lowest cost.
Ten years later, NASA has an aging fleet of space shuttles
with a propensity toward catastrophic failure and a space
station that is four times over budget and well behind schedule.
Last Sunday’s one-year anniversary of the Columbia disaster,
in which seven astronauts died, served as a sober reminder
for what can go wrong when a space agency lacks a clear sense
of direction and the financial backing to achieve its goals.
But NASA has successfully landed two rovers on Mars, no small
feat. But even that mission had its problems, with the first
rover malfunctioning shortly after its arrival. Still, when
things go wrong for robots in outer space, you beam software
fixes across some 35 million miles of space and hope they
do the trick. When things go wrong for humans, they die.
The current success of NASA’s two rovers calls into question
the need for human flight to Mars anytime in the foreseeable
future. The solar radiation, the isolation and the basic perils
of landing on a distant planet can be handled much more easily
by a machine. On the other hand, machines make lousy heroes.
But the debate goes deeper than that, to the very heart of
our purpose in space exploration.
The most likely objective for further space exploration is
greater military domination. Few Americans would want to see
China establish a moon base while NASA played with remote-control
astro-buggies halfway across the solar system. Military strategy
played a major role in President Kennedy’s promise in 1961
to land a man on the moon within a decade. It was also a factor
in the eventual decline of the space program. We won the space
race and then the Cold War. No more threat from above. End
Kennedy’s initiative also came with a hefty price tag. In
today’s dollars, the Apollo program cost more than $150 billion.
Meanwhile, for $12 billion, NASA is expected to develop an
all-purpose spacecraft to replace the shuttles in just four
years. If the International Space Station is any indication,
expect major cost over-runs and a lot of missed deadlines.
With that in mind, it seems that human-operated missions to
space must have well-defined goals. Why do it? How long will
it take? How much will it cost?
Bush’s proposal considers a moon base to be a critical step
toward colonizing Mars. Let’s ignore for the moment the larger
question of whether we need to send humans to Mars at all
and consider the moon as a destination of its own.
In terms of “why”: A renewed moon program could unlock some
of the mysteries of our solar system and the origins of life
on earth. Planetary scientists are especially interested in
exploring the South Pole-Aitken basin on the far side of the
moon. But these missions could also be done by robotic probes
at a fraction of the cost of a manned mission.
And that brings up the issue of money: Can a moon base be
established for roughly 15 percent of the cost of conducting
a war in a poorly armed Middle Eastern country? Not likely.
Bush’s plan would require a tremendous outlay of cash in the
years ahead. In his speech announcing the new space initiative,
he declared that “establishing an extended human presence
on the moon could vastly reduce the costs of further space
exploration.” Of course this says nothing about the initial
costs of establishing a moon base in the first place.
And it will be expensive. Each space shuttle flight costs
about $500 million, and building a moon base, not to mention
rockets for Mars, will likely require numerous trips to transport
thousands of tons of material. According to some estimates,
a single human-operated mission to Mars could cost as much
as $600 billion.
For a little more than one-tenth of a percent of that amount
($820 million), NASA just sent the two probes to Mars.
Probes may not be the answer indefinitely, but putting humans
on another planet has to be done for the right reasons. The
risks and the costs are simply too high, especially when machines
can do critical work such as surveys, measurements and analyses
of soil and rock samples. Human exploration will come with
time, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of scientific inquiry.
If Bush is serious about rejuvenating the space program, one
can only hope his administration puts the time and energy
into getting it right. But if his State of the Union address
is any indication, that’s not going to happen. He never mentioned
the Moon-Mars mission, despite his announcement only days
earlier. In that case, the entire initiative might turn out
to be just another pipe dream that derails any real sense
of mission at NASA.
And that would be a shame.