24 September 2005

Blast Off To Nowhere

Once again, Shrub sticks someone else with the bill to clean up his mess:
THIS week NASA described plans to return astronauts to the Moon in 2018 at a cost of $104 billion. That's nine years after President Bush leaves office. Starting from scratch in 1961, President Kennedy's commitment to put a man on the Moon and return him safely to Earth was realized in just eight years. What is going on?
The boy king wants to play spaceman, the grand vizier wants more money, and nobody wants to be left holding the ball when the treasury is empty, of course. Bob Park continues:
George W. Bush seems driven to complete his father's unfinished business in space, as in Iraq. But much has changed. The cold war, which provided the initial motivation for our space program, is long gone. And technological progress has superseded human space exploration. Remotely controlled instruments have become natural extensions of frail human bodies.


The benefits we enjoy from the space program - weather satellites, communications satellites and global positioning - come from robotic spacecraft. Few scientists are calling for a human mission to the Moon or Mars. Human space exploration is essentially over. It is too expensive and provides too little return. But politicians know that the American public identifies progress in space with human astronauts.

The Bush administration's solution is to create an impossibly expensive and pointless program for some other administration to cancel, thus bearing the blame for ending human space exploration. The return to the moon is not a noble quest. It is a poison pill.
If anything, I think Park understates the extent to which this will hinder NASA's ability to do anything useful. Not only will a future administration have to kill human space exploration when it becomes clear we're pissing away billions of dollars for no good reason, but in the meantime they're going to have to pretend they aren't just charging it to the national debt, and that means delaying, scaling back, or abandoning useful parts of the space program. Already, the James Webb Space Telescope, Hubble's replacement, has been delayed and scaled back to give more pork to Northrop-Grumman and TRW (that's the same TRW that falsified the results of tests on their missile defense targeting system). Ironically, though a mission to Mars would allegedly be for exploration, the first programs to get the axe would probably be those for actual exploration: the Origins program. We've already seen a likely refusal to extend support for the Voyager missions, right as Voyager I reaches the outer boundary of the solar system, gathering information we'll never otherwise get our hands on without another 25-year wait. Sure, human space exploration has the 'coolness' factor, but it seems abundantly clear all that will happen is NASA will pay for Haliburton's drilling R&D and we'll end up with a bunch of half-built rockets that go no further than the test pad. Besides, even if Park is wrong (a big if, I think) about this being a poison pill in effect, if not intent, is one trip to Mars really worth 30 times a telescope that can watch the first stars forming?

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