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It’s not about the people July 24, 2009

Posted by gordonwatts in NASA, politics, science.

This is a copy of a guest post I made over at Gordon’s blog a few days ago (he is away and asked for some help).

So – who’s been following the Apollo 8th’s 40th anniversary? NASA has put together a pretty cool web site with lots of great resources. The Apollo mission was truly one of our crowning technological achievements. And at a time like this you can’t help but look forward at the same time you look forward. And you run right into the same questions as always: can America afford space exploration? What should the program look like in the near and long-term future?

Ignoring the moral factor for the country, the science case for exploration is pretty strong in my view. There is a lot we don’t know about our own earth, about the moon, and, especially, about near-by planets. Telescopes that are out of the earth’s atmosphere have unique advantages when it comes to deep space exploration. We have a lot yet to discover about the planet we currently live on and on the solar system, galaxy, and universe we inhabit. I’m always in favor of more knowledge. Can we afford it. The USA? Certainly! I can’t think of many crises in the USA that would warrant totally canceling the space program (or any other science program for that matter). No country can survive without a balance in how it spends money – on the present as well as the near and far futures. The global warming crisis has already taught us how important it is to know where we live and how we are affecting the environment around us (no matter which side of the debate you are on!).

So what should be space program look like? I think it should look more like this:

rover_sundial[1] and less like this:

man-on-the-moon[1]The reason is bang-for-the-buck. I think it is pretty hard to deny that sending people up into space is amazingly expensive right now. You have to get them up, and you have to get them back. You have to supply life support. Escape hatches. Lots of space you might fill with equipment is people and oxygen and etc. People are amazingly good at improvising. Something goes wrong – your buggy gets stuck on a rock or similar – people can adapt. That is where they really beat out a robot. We can get an idea of something that needs to be done, and quickly come up with a plan that balances all the risk factors, the obstacles, and still achieves the goal. Heck, if on the way to accomplishing the plan something interesting distracts us – well, that is useful too – perhaps we made one of those serendipitous discoveries; whatever: we can quickly evaluate the interesting thing and decide if it is just a rock reflecting light or some form of Martian currency. Finally, because we have to bring back the humans, bringing back that discovery has very little additional cost (other than biohazard containment!).

Robots have different strengths. Many of the things I’ve listed above robots aren’t so good at. On the other hand, they can stay on a planet for months or years. Need no life support – so getting them there is a lot cheaper. We are getting good enough at creating these exploration robots that we can given them simple tasks and they can take care of themselves. Since they are there for months or years at a time, it doesn’t matter if they aren’t extraordinarily efficient, we can just have them repeat the exercise several times until they get it right. And, perhaps because we don’t have to carry all the support equipment for humans out there, we can stuff an extra scientific instrument or two on the device and get that much more information out.

The thing is – the science case is overwhelmingly in favor of the robots right now. Check out the poster-child for this – the Mars Rover Missions. 5 years of exploration and science. Less than one billion bucks. What did putting a man on the moon cost? I can’t find firm numbers – but it isn’t uncommon to see numbers like 100 billion. Now, I don’t think going back to the moon would be that expensive – it usually is cheaper the second time around. Mars, which was Bush’s stated goal, would probably be that or close to it. For that kind of cost you could littler Mars with rovers and send a few to other planets.

Maybe these commercial endeavors getting people into space cheaply will change the cost/benefit equation. If successful they may well change my opinion of things like the space station – things in low earth orbit. If you could fly the parts up there cheaply and ferry people back and forth – then it might just be another expensive government lab where micro-gravity experiments could be done (in isolation too). But getting people further out to the Moon or Mars would still be very expensive – I doubt I’d be convinced.

Besides, the more experience we have with sending objects up the better prepared we will be when the aliens arrive. 😉



1. Daniel de França MTd2 - July 24, 2009

IMHO, Human Space Explorations should not be about science, but giving a new path for collaboration in human existence that doesn’t limit itself with stupid endings like profit and wars.

2. Gordon Watts - July 24, 2009

That is the sort of thing that should be used to motivate human space exploration.

3. Isaac - July 24, 2009

Spaceflights, whether manned or unmanned, seem to me to be more about technology/engineering, nationalism, and progressive inspiration than they are about science, at least at this point in human history. In my opinion the cancelled Superconducting SuperCollider would have been a much better bang-for-buck as far as doing actual science, I mean, how does one even put a value on the “bang” that corresponds to a once-in-a-civilization universal discovery? I’m sure that griping about the cancelled SSC is old hat for most readers of this blog, but whenever I see the robotic vs manned flights arguments about NASA, I think about how the potential scientific output of either of these types of missions is minimal compared to what would have come from the SSC.

4. Gordon Watts - July 24, 2009

Hi Isaac – I mostly agree with you. I do think the robotic missions are well worth the money we spend. We learn quite a bit from them. I don’t think I’d like to have ot argue that that is better than what we will see with the SSC or vise-versa.

You hit the point on the head – the maned space program is about things other than science for the most part. if the country decides that engineer expertise, the moral, etc., is worth it – then spend the money. But don’t use science as a reason to spend the money. 🙂

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