Explore space with probes and telescopes, not people

The Economist has an interesting short article criticizing manned space exploration and praising the Obama administration for appearing ready to reprioritize America’s goals in space.

Mr Obama’s transition team had already been asking difficult questions of NASA, in particular about the cost of scrapping parts of the successor to the ageing and obsolete space shuttles that now form America’s manned space programme. That successor system is also designed to return humans to the moon by 2020, as a stepping stone to visiting Mars. Meanwhile, Mr Obama’s administration is wondering about spending more money on lots of new satellites designed to look down at the Earth, rather than outward into space.

These are sensible priorities. In space travel, as in politics, domestic policy should usually trump grandiose foreign adventures. Moreover, cash is short and space travel costly.

The article recommends using space probes and robots, like New Horizons (going to Pluto), Cassini (already at Saturn), and Mars Pathfinder to explore our Solar System.

While it'd be neat to have people on the Moon, this is a bad idea

While it'd be neat to have people on the Moon, the idea is not cost-effective at all

While nothing is as cool as people in space, I wholeheartedly support investing our scarce space dollars in robotic and remote exploration instead of for crewed (“manned” is a bit androcentric) missions.  For instance, NASA’s Moon Base proposal, despite being very modest, will still cost hundreds of billions of dollars. And it is unlikely that the knowledge and experience that we gain from such a base will justify the expense.  The last Apollo missions were canceled and we haven’t been back to the Moon since the early 70s precisely because the place isn’t all that interesting.  (For a good critique of NASA’s moon base idea, see “Moon Baseless“, an article by Gregg Easterbrook, who has been following the space program for decades.)

By contrast, excellent science is being done by our newest space probes and robots—and for far less money.  New Horizons will have a total mission cost (from planning through the end of operations) of just $650 million; the total cost of the Cassini-Huygens mission is about $3.26 billion (including $1.4 billion for pre-launch development, $704 million for mission operations, $54 million for tracking and $422 million for the launch vehicle).  Telescopes are also very cost effective.  The Sptizer Space Telescope itself cost just $800 million and the planned James Webb Space Telescope will have a total cost (including planning, launch, and operation) of about $4.5 billion.

In short, for the cost of a Moon base we can explore the entire Solar System with probes and robots and explore the depths of space across all portions of the spectrum via orbiting and ground-based telescopes.  If funding were unlimited things would be different; but it’s not and they aren’t.  We have limited money for science, so we should spend it wisely.

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