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[Comments] (4) You Will Go To The Moon (But You Probably Shouldn't): I mentioned earlier that reading Oliver Morton's entry on changing his mind about manned space exploration had a strong effect on my own opinions. But Morton's entry is pretty sparse and assumes a lot of knowledge, so I wrote this longer entry about my own journey to a similar opinion.

A talk about priorities is usually a talk about money, so here's a baseline number. NASA's 2008 budget is $17.3 billion. This is not a trivial sum, but since the government always seems able to allocate much larger sums for pointless wars, weapons systems that don't work and/or are strategically useless, etc., I've never bought into the argument that this $17.3 billion is taking off the table money that could be used to solve pressing social problems. (In fact there's a pressing social problem that NASA is in a good position to help with, except that part got taken out of NASA's mission statement.) I prefer to think of NASA's budget as a Strategic Awesomeness Reserve. And over time I've come to the conclusion that manned space exploration is not awesome-effective.

My realization has been a while in coming and I can identify four big steps towards it: hearing the State of the Union Address in 2004, learning about the cancellation of the Europa mission in 2006, reading The Right Stuff in late 2007, and reading Morton's entry a couple weeks ago.

Until I started writing this paragraph, my recollection was that in his 2004 State of the Union Address, George W. Bush kind of casually announced an extremely expensive set of manned missions to the Moon and Mars, and then never mentioned them again; taking what in the hands of a competent president might have been inspiring, and making it seem tawdry and shameful. I'm not the only person who had this memory.

But what actually happened was even stranger. The week before the SOTU, Bush gave a totally separate speech outlining his Vision For Space Exploration(tm). A week later he had already forgotten about the moon base and manned mission to Mars he'd sent NASA scampering to develop. Or at least he didn't consider it worthy of mention in the SOTU, certainly not nearly as important as lecturing the country on the horrors of same-sex marriage. It gave me the strange feeling of being part of some space-nut block whose votes are vitally important to George W. Bush, a block worthy of billions in largesse, but a block whose hot-button issues must never be mentioned in speeches that people pay attention to. Unfortunately, unlike most of us, the people at NASA don't have the luxury of ignoring an incompetent president's offhand suggestions; they're still dilligently working on making a permanent moon base operational twelve years from now.

Item two: the Europa mission. Now that I'm researching this, it's a lot more complicated than I thought. The "Europa mission" was just one part of an enormous meta-mission called the Jupiter Icy Moons Orbiter (new from 7-11). The cost of the meta-mission would have been a huge $10 billion, a lot more than I'd guessed for Europa alone. Nonetheless, right now I think a Europa probe is the single most awesome space mission. (Runners-up: next year's Kepler mission and Mars Science Laboratory.)

$6.7 billion—a plurality of NASA's 2008 budget—is spent on "space operations": the ISS and the Space Shuttle. This is sunk awesomeness. It is cool to have a space station; it might even be $2 billion a year cool. But is the Space Shuttle twice as cool per year? We've been doing three shuttle launches a year. What do we do on those launches? We build the ISS. Why are we building the ISS? Because people living in space is awesome. Is it so awesome the whole package is worth $6.7 billion a year? Is there a more awesome way of spending that money?

Here are what I consider the top eleven most awesome American space projects of my lifetime, presented in descending order of cost. (Numbers are a little fuzzy, mostly due to inflation since the time total cost was reported.)

There's a huge discontinuity. The bottom seven items on my list cost less in total than continuing the top two items through 2008. Even if you think it's really really awesome to send H. sapiens into Earth orbit, is the Space Shuttle program thirty times more awesome than the Hubble program? (I realize that over its lifetime the Hubble has had to be serviced by astronauts from the Shuttle, but it would have been significantly cheaper to send up a new space telescope every five years!) I pinpoint the Space Shuttle, the ISS, and Cassini-Huygens as not being awesome-effective, and the MSL had better be pretty damn awesome. (Not sure why C-H was so expensive, except that it started out as a JIMO-like meta-mission and had to be pared down.)

More generally, just about any unmanned space mission you could imagine is better awesomeness for money than any manned mission, unless you think that sending a human body is so awesome as to outweigh all other considerations. Some examples off the top of my head that I'm pretty sure no one is doing: go to Europa. Go to the other moons of Jupiter. Send more robots to the moon. Send recovery missions to Mars and the asteroids. Set up a radio observatory on the far side of the moon. Build enough telescopes that astronomers don't have to fight for observation time on the Hubble.

Okay, that's pie-in-the sky stuff. But now comes the Vision For Space Exploration(tm) with its $100B lunar base. The manned missions are expanding, and they're squeezing out the unmanned missions--that's what happened to the Europa mission. The permanent moon base will cost about twice of NASA's contribution to the ISS, and (I don't have a number for this, but it's pretty likely) the twice-yearly round-trip flights to the moon for crew rotation will cost more than the thrice-yearly shuttle flights we do now.

Unlike with the Shuttle and the ISS, we haven't spent most of that money yet, or (thanks to W's buried speech) gotten psychologically invested in the mission. We still have an opportunity to step back and say "Maybe we should buy an incredible amount of awesomeness with this money instead of a moderate amount of awesomeness." Or maybe for you $100 billion gets into the range where it could be better spent on something other than astonomical awesomeness.

I used to buy into the Apollo-era idea that on a visceral level it doesn't count as "exploration" unless a human body does it. This lasted in some form until I read The Right Stuff. There I saw the origin of my emotions towards manned space travel, and it was kind of creepy. The Mercury astronauts were pioneers but they didn't explore anything. From an exploration standpoint it made no sense to include them in the capsules--they had to fight to get a tiny bit of control over their trajectory. They were sent up because we were locked in a competition to prove who was the most awesome, cost be damned. The moon shot came out of Kennedy's desire "to announce a program that the U.S. had a strong chance at achieving before the Soviet Union." Tying exploration into this is equivocation. Exploration demonstrates how awesome the universe is, not how awesome you are.

My preconception has a corollary that space exploration has been moribund since Apollo--that is, I've never lived during a time of active exploration. But if you look back without the preconception, space exploration has been steadily progressing for sixty years. The first golden age was the post-Apollo 1970s, when the solar system opened up to us. The other golden age is the one we're living in now, the one with all the stuff on my top-eleven list, where the Hubble has expanded the visible universe by orders of magnitude. The golden age doesn't need to stop or even slow down, but it probably will if NASA goes ahead and builds a moon base so that... people will live on the moon and it will be awesome.

Even in the unlikely event that the US government stopped doing manned space flight altogether, manned flight and research into it will continue. There is now a lot of private-sector interest in sending people into orbit, because people will pay for it. People will also pay to visit (probably not live on) the moon or a space station. I, too, think sending a human body to the moon would be unbelievably awesome, provided that the human body is mine. There is not a lot of private-sector interest in radio astronomy or sending a probe to Europa.

Don't settle for the moon. To quote Morton, "A world with a spartan $100 billion moonbase but no ability to measure spectra and lightcurves from earthlike planets around distant stars is not the world for me."

[Comments] (3) You Will Go To The Moon (It Will Be Cool): While writing the previous entry I was thinking of how to give the experience of being on the moon to the most people for the lowest cost. The moon is close enough that telepresence is practical, so my initial thought was of a playground of a few square miles where you could pay to run around as a telepresence robot. But user-controlled mobile robots on the moon are easy to break and hard to replace. So how about dropping a few hundred solid-state, solar-powered panoramic cameras in different lunar locations. Each has a linkup to a communications satellite that transmits a high-quality image back to Earth.

Now you can put on a VR helmet and get a view from any of the cameras. Since the cameras are panoramic, any number of people can use the data feed simultaneously to look in any direction. You're on the moon!

I don't think this is a practical business idea, but it's a lot more practical than actually sending people to the moon. Plus, it works the same everywhere. You can look around a time-shifted panorama of Mars in realtime, rather than telling the camera to move and waiting eight minutes for the shot to change.

: Fun essay with code: Can a Bayesian spam filter play chess?


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