< Previous
You Will Go To The Moon (It Will Be Cool) >

[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."

Filed under:


Posted by Aristotle Pagaltzis at Mon Feb 04 2008 13:20

And yet, with astronauts on Mars, we could have done the same amount of science that the rovers did in all their time there, within hours – or at worst, days.

Building a *base* is the silly idea, and it’s what pushes the cost of the mission into such exorbitant heights (no pun intended). Why would we want to establish a permanent presence there? We can’t do enough science at a fast enough pace on-site that a base would be cost efficient.

Building a base in low Earth orbit, which is what the ISS effectively is, is a nearly equally costly but even stupider idea. There’s nothing to explore up there, and hardly any interesting science to do. Merely us being there, while still dependent to this extent on the blue mothership, is no useful feat at all. The problem with the ISS isn’t that it costs so much, it’s that it does so little. (Merely being there *would* be awesome if there was a realistic chance to make our presence there self-sustaining, and our current presence had the purpose of achieving that. But right now that’s science fiction, so our current presence is purposeless.)

A moon base… well, that actually has the potential to be useful. I don’t know that we can achieve useful things in the near term (again, just going there to be there would be pointless), and I don’t know that we’d need a permanent human presence for it, but putting permanently operative instruments on the moon could actually be productive and more than worth the money. Imagine an interferometer whose far half is on the moon. I can’t imagine this being easier to set up with robotic rather than manned missions.

However, going to Mars temporarily? Do you think there’s *anyone in this world* who wouldn’t be riveted to their TV screen if that were to go down? And do you doubt that we could do a hell of a lot more exploration than with tiny robots with a 16-hour communications latency? We’d easily get 100× as much awesome as from all robotic Mars missions to day taken together. In the medium term we’d also get a bunch of new every-day technology out of the push, as we did from the Moon effort.

And it should cause a satisfying amount of cognitive dissonance for the Moon Hoax morons…

Posted by Tim May at Mon Feb 04 2008 14:27

The orbital mechanics of a Mars mission are such that under any reasonably efficient programme a single visit would involve astronauts staying on the surface for months. It seems to me that if you're going to do that at all (I'm perhaps 50/50 on whether this is a good idea in the near future) it makes sense to extend it to a permanent presence - you can start by reusing the habitation modules from the early missions. There's plenty of science to do on Mars, & it's by far the most promising place in the solar system for a self-sustaining colony (though I suspect it'll be more like the Antarctic research stations).

Posted by Leonard at Mon Feb 04 2008 21:41

I always say: if you're spelling it "programme" you're probably not paying for it.

Aristotle, I disagree with you about the usefulness of a manned mission, but it's the sort of disagreement that could be resolved one way or another with better daya. The lowball estimates I've found for a single manned Mars mission are $20 billion (Mars Direct) and $40 billion (VfSE, but that's on top of about $200 billion, some unknown amount of which is precursor work). I'd rather spend that money on a Mars mission than on 4-7 more years of the Shuttle and ISS, but that's not saying much. For $20 billion you could send a differently-instrumented MSL-like probe every year for ten years.

My semiinformed belief is that you can get more science out of a mission by choosing a different environment and bringing more equipment. Unmanned missions can always bring more equipment, and since they're so much cheaper you can send more probes to different locations (the Finnish MetNet mission is going to blanket Mars with "tens" of probes).

An interferometer on the moon is an awesome idea, but I don't think it would be more difficult to do it unmanned. There are interferometer space telescopes in the works, for instance. And my general argument is that even if it is more difficult to do a particular task as an unmanned mission, it's also at least an order of magnitude less expensive, so you can do other things with the rest of the money.

Posted by Tim May at Tue Feb 05 2008 11:03

[I]f you're spelling it "programme" you're probably not paying for it.

That's actually a surprisingly complex issue, but e.g. I'd rather that the ESA's contribution to the ISS was spent on almost anything else, manned Mars missions being one possibility.

Seriously, I agree with almost everything you've said here, Leonard, except that I think a well-run Mars programme might be worth the cost. At any rate, I don't see much point in any kind of human spaceflight that doesn't advance that goal.

Did you ever read Maciej Cegłowski's piece on the Shuttle?


Unless otherwise noted, all content licensed by Leonard Richardson
under a Creative Commons License.