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To the Moon and Mars – Is It True? September 3, 2008

Posted by gordonwatts in politics, science, USA.

I’m still in Ottawa, gently re-integrating myself back into North America. I can actually stay up past 9pm now (jet lag!). Going though old email I stumbled on this:

The Democratic presidential candidate has called for the U.S. to lead the way in terms of space exploration, and wants to put astronauts on the moon yet again.

On top of that, he also wants to pursue the eventual goal of putting astronauts on Mars.

Barack Obama has come out and stated that by 2020, he wants another U.S. trip to the moon, and has also promised full support, with a great deal of funding for NASA.

Is that really Obama’s position? Wait. I guess I can look at his web site now… Under Issues on his site Science isn’t listed. Wait — I was about to get lost in how little Science is mentioned on his web site – which is a whole other post. Just concentrating on NASA… Ok — couldn’t find it under issues. I did find this position paper. I found it via a search engine, so I’m not sure exactly what it was (talking points for a speach, etc.). But it directly addresses space exploration. First of all, it is balanced. It notes that basic research (for climate change, etc.) has all been cut. And that funding would have to be restored.

But it still talks about human space flight – and almost always as a feel-good exercise rather than something scientific. When he gets to the meat of the human space flight component of what he wants to do, he starts with the following:

Human spaceflight is important to America’s political, economic, technological, and scientific leadership.

and then

He supports a funding goal that maintains at least 10 percent of the total exploration systems budget for research and development.

So, 90% is all about feel good and getting back to the moon and mars, and 10% is about doing the actual science. Also, why is he so fixated on the microgravity experiments that were to take place on the International Space Station before funding cuts eliminated them?

I am a bit disappointed in this. I really don’t think it is a good use of our countries resources to send a person to Mars. I’m all for sending more robots there – lots of them. Much cheaper (it doesn’t matter so much if they don’t come back). And the science they can do is better (the rocket fuel you save on not sending a human you can use to send extra equipment).

I’d like to see this country get on with funding real science. And less of this:

“When I was growing up, NASA united Americans to a common purpose and inspired the world with accomplishments we are still proud of. Today, NASA is an organization that impacts many facets of American life. I believe NASA needs an inspirational vision for the 21st Century. My vision will build on the great goals set forth in recent years, to maintain a robust program of human space exploration and ensure the fulfillment of NASA’s mission….”


1. Paul Guinnessy - September 3, 2008

You can find some comments and his space policy plan at our site http://blogs.physicstoday.org/politics08

2. Anonymous - September 3, 2008

Exploration is not science, but there is a place for it. E.g., where would we be if Columbus (et al.) hadn’t made their voyages? (You’d probably be back in Marseille, so perhaps not so terrible, but nevertheless.)

But it is, however, a terrible pity that politicians mistake manned space exploration for science, when the two are orthogonal, and science is how we actually learn about nature. One can hope that Obama might learn something at some point (as I think there is little hope for McCain/Palin). I also find Obama’s science investment plan weak and poorly informed. Maybe Bill Foster can help him out regarding basic research.

3. gordonwatts - September 3, 2008

Anonymous — definately. I do not want to kill the exploration part of NASA — especially the unmaned bit! I think there is a lot of knowledge to be gained by studying the planets in our solar system and if we could figure out better way to study the ones outside… definately — send robots there. My problem is the fixation with sending people to these destinations. I’m not aware of a good reason to send a person vs sending a robot.

Paul — thanks for the link. I’ve added it to my RSS reader!

4. Anonymous - September 4, 2008

I largely agree and think the manned component should be reduced. Its cost:benefit ratio is low.

But note that a lot of what we do could be considered feel-good excercises, in that people don’t need them for putting food on the table etc. Eventually — i.e. in a couple hundred years — these places will actually need to be colonized, as the Earth will start to run into habitability issues with 10x the present population, so I wouldn’t scratch it entirely. A long time in the future, but then again, when will we actually start using dark matter and dark energy for commercial purposes? Of course, that’s not their only use — we’d like to know more about them anyway, but the arguments are somewhat similar. Nevertheless, the budget for manned space exploration shouldn’t be 50x that for fundamental physics, which is the ridiculous case now!

5. Gordon Watts - September 4, 2008

Yes. I would agree with that. I think there is a great deal more to be learned about places like Mars, etc., using robots. No need to send a human there – or even develop the tech yet — especially given other pressing things.

And don’t get me wrong — when I talk about science funding in this context I’m not talking just about pure research like particle physics. I include everything here – like condensed matter physics (the ratio of grants awarded to # of people that apply there is crazy low).

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