Monday, July 20, 2009

The Past and Future of Space Exploration

Today is the fortieth anniversary of the first manned Moon landing and Moon walk.1 To commemorate, Google has introduced Google Moon, which includes markers for the six manned moon landings (but what about the unmanned? robots are people too! haha). Here's a zoomed-in map of the Apollo-11 moon landing site. (Hat-tip to GoogleMapsMania, where there are a few more moon-related links.)

Apparently the Apollo 11 astronauts are on the stump today for the manned mission to Mars. I'm rather doubtful of the advisability of working toward such a mission now.

First of all, manned missions are "astronomically" more expensive than unmanned missions for the simple reason that we rightly value human life and want to return our astronauts to Earth alive. Equipment requires testing so that some spring doesn't fly off and puncture a spacesuit, for example. Even more, all the equipment to maintain an Earth-like environment is dreadfully heavy. Since increasing payload weight increases the amount of fuel required, which itself increases the weight and thus the amount of fuel needed, the total fuel required to lift a payload into orbit increases with the square of the weight. So life-support alone makes manned missions much, much more costly.

Secondly as any space scientist can tell you (privately), the vast bulk of space science comes from unmanned missions, e.g., the successes of Voyager, Mars Rover, and Galileo. Scientists remain silent in public because they want to keep their NASA funding. Pound for pound and dollar for dollar, unmanned missions are scientifically orders of magnitude far more productive than manned missions.

Of course there's far more than scientific discovery at stake with a Mars mission: there's also national pride, firing the imagination of science students, etc. But can we really afford to spend billions of dollars simply to feel better about ourselves at this point? Can't we motivate our students in a more cost effective way, say, by promoting parental involvement? Besides, unmanned missions are exciting too: just look at the interest created by the pictures from the Voyager missions, or the Mars Rover.

Granted: our government has just given away close to $100 billion to unwise banks and failing businesses. The federal budget is over $2 trillion. A couple billion dollars a year seems a measly amount by comparison. Mark Thornton has a great response:

I have to admit that with all the hundreds of billions of dollars the federal government is wasting, it is hard to muster the energy to argue against a few additional billion. I reiterate that the real cost is not just a dollar amount, but all the things that could be produced if the proposal is rejected. This is an enormous amount of scientific and technical ability that could otherwise be used in the private sector to produce important discoveries and help keep the US economy number one in the world. In contrast to conventional wisdom which sees government budgets as a benefactor to science, the economic view shows that every dollar government spends on science actually hurts the progress of science and scientific discovery because scientific resources are diverted away from where they are needed most into nonperforming bureaucracies. We must also consider the fact that estimated or projected budgets are almost universally inaccurate and vastly underestimate the true cost of programs. For example, the International Space Station was more than 500% over budget and is still incomplete after twenty years. The actual cost of the Shuttle moving resources into space was underestimated by a factor of twenty. Based on current estimates of the total cost of going to Mars ($170 billion) the true cost could easily mount to $1 trillion.

As history has shown, government bureaucracies are horribly inept at space exploration. (This is for the simple reason that it gets its funding from its citizens at gunpoint, as it were—bullies are horribly lazy.) Privatizing space exploration would be far more efficient way to achieve goals in space and to benefit society.

People arguing for publicly funded manned missions point to the legacy such missions will leave for future generations. But I think it is more likely that future generations would blame us for opting to pleasure ourselves (as our consumeristic society already does too much these days) with an inefficient effort that saddles them with more public debt.

I'm sure that someday we'll land astronauts on Mars. In the meantime public funding would be better spent on exploring with robots and maybe developing more efficient propulsion systems. But really it would be best to turn over space exploration to the free market.


1. There is an obvious joke here, but that poor man's memory has been held in public view far too long already.

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