Get over the moon. We need NASA to save the Earth

April 15, 2010

Gregg Easterbrook is a Reuters columnist. Any views expressed are his own.

Space policy is a small fraction of the U.S. federal budget – around one percent, when NASA and Air Force spending are combined – and much less important than topics such as health care, defense or debt. But if government can’t get minor policy right, how can it be trusted with major issues? That is the underlying question of President Barack Obama’s appearance at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida today. Cable-news commentary may focus on the political fight: who gets the biggest handouts. More important is whether Obama can change NASA from an example of what’s wrong with government (wasteful projects that serve only political favorites) to an example of what can be right (an agency that provides tangible benefits to taxpayers).

Yes, the Apollo moon landings were significant and memorable, but the last one occurred 38 years ago. In recent decades, NASA’s record has been spotty. The agency’s space science program – probes of the outer planets, telescopes that scan the far heavens – is successful and cost-effective. But for decades manned space flight, which receives the bulk of NASA funds, has accomplished: um, what? More money than was spent for the Apollo moon missions has been invested in the International Space Station, whose primary function is to give the space shuttle a destination. The shuttle, in turn, exists mainly to fly to the space station. The space station has no notable scientific achievements: it is such a white elephant that already NASA is studying the best way to “deorbit” the whole 380-ton structure, meaning allow it to burn in the upper atmosphere. This may happen as soon as 2016.

While spending freely on the space station and the shuttle, NASA has avoided research into new launch strategies that might cut the cost of access to orbit. Lower cost isn’t wanted – the whole point is to make the manned program expensive! And NASA has done just shy of nothing to plan for protecting the Earth from an asteroid strike: more on that in a moment.

Looking ahead to the inevitable demise of the space station, in 2004, NASA and the George W. Bush White House cooked up a plan to return astronauts to the Moon. That didn’t make much sense – because the Apollo landings found nothing of pressing scientific interest, NASA had gone 25 years without so much as launching an automated probe to the Moon. But sustaining spending, not finding a valid objective, was the goal.

To make a return-to-the-Moon seem like something more than a warmed-over reenactment, Bush declared that a Moon base would be a steppingstone to Mars. Physicists and engineers winced. There is no possibility a Mars mission would stop at the Moon; all proposed Mars missions involve departure directly from low-Earth orbit to the Red Planet. Landing first at the Moon, then blasting off again, would use up nearly all the mission’s fuel to accomplish, um, what?

LUNAR PORK-BARREL

Obama’s proposed fiscal 2011 budget cancels the Moon-return program, which is oddly called  Project Constellation, though it has nothing to do with the study of constellations. (And not called Project Artemis: she was Apollo’s sister, NASA can’t even come up with good names anymore.) There will be a nasty fight on Capitol Hill over canceling the Moon return, a presidential decision Congress must approve, because politically favored contractors and congressional districts would lose pork-barrel spending. It is essential that Obama’s rejection of Project Constellation is made to stick. If the president cannot impose fiscal rationality on an issue as minor as space spending, how will he ever wrestle the national debt to the ground?

A sure sign of the pork-barrel essence of the Moon-return idea is that proponents are going directly to the lamest possible arguments in its defense: jobs and China. You’ll hear a lot today, and in weeks to come, about how canceling the Moon return will cost jobs. NASA currently has $108 billion scheduled for spending on Constellation, with 6,000 jobs directly tied to the project. That’s $18 million per job created, an absurd amount. Washington could create more jobs by spending that $108 billion on something else, or better by not spending the money, returning capital to the free market.

Going deeper into silliness, Rep. Pete Olson of Texas, whose district includes the Johnson Space Center, which would control a second Moon mission, recently said the president “seems willing to hand off American dominance in human spaceflight to nations like Russia and China.” Russia does a number of things well in space, including affordable launching, but does not challenge the United States in any way: decades after the Moon race, cosmonauts still have never left low-Earth orbit. FKA, Russia’s answer to NASA, today is essentially a NASA subcontractor; “The USA May Order a Remote-Sensing Satellite in Russia” is the current lead headline on the FKA website.

China? The Chinese space program is about where the United States was in 1965; China’s best manned-space hardware is equivalent to NASA’s obsolete Gemini rocket-capsule stack. If China lands a man on the lunar regolith half a century after the United States reached “been there, done that” status for this objective, it is hard to see how that threatens America – let China be the country to waste a huge chunk of national treasure looking for ice on the Moon! Old-timers from NASA, and pork-barrel proponents such as Rep. Olson, want to depict China’s 1960s-vintage space effort as a national threat, because then money will flow without any need to prove the case. If a return-to-the-Moon made sense on its own, proponents would argue on the merits.

Obama’s NASA plan involves canceling the Moon return, and canceling two new rockets, Ares and Ares V, both under development; starting a new development program for a very powerful rocket that could be used to reach asteroids; keeping the manned space program in business at a lower budget; postponing the burn-up of the space station till 2020; temporarily paying FKA $56 million per seat to fly U.S. astronauts to the space station (space-shuttle launches cost about $150 million per seat); directing more funds to satellites designed to study Earth and the Sun; and encouraging a commercial-space industry that would develop private launchers to replace the FKA flights. Obama does not propose any commitment to Mars travel – surely this will happen someday, but for now the technical obstacles appear insurmountable, unless truly vast sums of money were spent.

FREE-ENTERPRISE ROCKETRY

There is good and bad in the White House plan. More study of the Earth and Sun has long been needed, since this could discover information of tangible benefit to taxpayers. More study of Venus is needed, too – that planet has a runaway greenhouse atmosphere, and Earth governments are contemplating greenhouse regulation. Canceling Ares V development is a puzzling step, since that rocket would be very powerful – exactly what another part of Obama’s plan seeks to develop. (This part of the plan would make sense if there is a propulsion breakthrough; Ares V uses existing engine technology. Flight to Mars would become less impractical if higher rocket speeds were achieved.) Keeping the space station in orbit is politically expedient, since this postpones the incredibly embarrassing day when Obama, or some president, has to explain why the single most expensive object ever constructed is being deliberately burned up above our heads.

Obama’s plan to encourage free-enterprise rocketry sounds great, but is extremely unrealistic. Only one company, Sea Launch, has ever succeeded in placing a large, privately funded rocket into orbit, and right now Sea Launch is in Chapter 11. The capital requirement for reaching space is very high, the customer base modest. (Here are details about Sea Launch and private rocketry.)

The White House would provide $6 billion over five years to encourage development of private rockets, but this is a drop in the bucket. The new Boeing 787 and its engines cost about $13 billion to develop, and the 787, while beautiful, is just an airplane. A new “human-rated” — multiple redundant systems — rocket capable of carrying significant payloads to orbit could easily require $25 billion or more for development. No private company will be able to raise such a sum without a long-term guaranteed NASA contract, at which point you might as well just have NASA develop the next rocket. (Private flight to orbit will happen someday, but absent a major breakthrough, perhaps not for decades. The winged “spaceship” being developed by Richard Branson is not a spaceship; it will fly higher than conventional aircraft, but not reach orbit.)

Overall, the Obama NASA plan is the first serious attempt to reorient the space agency away from pork barrel and toward rational spending priorities. Will Obama succeed, or will oink-oink rule on the Hill? Let’s root for the president and rationality, even if Obama’s plan needs improvement. Washington is under the thumb of countless agencies and programs whose justification is slim, but whose funding continues year after year for pork reasons. Obama must show he can break the psychology of permanent spending before he can face larger budget challenges ahead. NASA is a good place to start.

And asteroids? Just because an asteroid strike was the premise of a ridiculous Bruce Willis movie is no reason to think this can’t happen. As recently as a few decades ago, researchers believed asteroid strikes were extremely unlikely, or had been confided to the mists of the far past. Recent research shows that near-Earth asteroids are far more common than thought, while major strikes have occurred much too recently for comfort: including a probable asteroid strike in the year 536 that might have caused mass extinctions, if the rock had hit land instead of the ocean. Here is detail on asteroid-threat research. And here is the running count of asteroids that might threaten Earth – 280 as of Wednesday, and nearly all of them discovered in the last 10 years.

Yet NASA has no program to counter an asteroid threat – not one piece of equipment in development. This 2008 Air Force “war game” concluded that it would be possible to deflect an asteroid away from Earth, but that five to 10 years of preparation would be needed. So why are we gambling the existence of humanity by doing nothing? True, an asteroid-deflection rocket might never be used. But we built ICBMs in the hopes they would never be used. And an asteroid-deflecting project should cost substantially less than the amount NASA is eager to waste on the Moon.

One can appreciate that neither the space agency, nor the White House, wants to announce a program that sounds like a Bruce Willis movie. But the threat is genuine, and if we wait until a large asteroid is observed approaching, it will be too late. Unlike a Moon base, asteroid protection could return tangible benefits to the taxpayer. Stopping an asteroid from striking the Earth could be, well, the greatest achievement in human history. Didn’t somebody say NASA needs an inspirational mission?

19 comments

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

you’ve seen too many movies, my friend

Posted by Storyburncom_is | Report as abusive

wow, asteroid deflection. I like that idea.

Posted by nano | Report as abusive

How pathetic!!!

Posted by Mobster | Report as abusive

Gregg,

Congratulations on producing what is probably the most uninformed article I have yet seen on the new “space policy” proposed by the administration.

A few specific comments:

1. In contrast to your characterization (and those of about 95% of the rest of the media) the purpose of lunar return was NOT to repeat Apollo, but to learn how to use the material and energy resources of the Moon to create a sustainable human presence off-planet. Such a mission is light-years away from anything Apollo did. And the Mars connection was NOT to “land on the Moon on the way to Mars” is you so inaccurately put it but to 1) build up experience living and working on an alien planetary surface; and 2) use the water resources present at the poles of the Moon to manufacture propellant for human missions to the planets. A chemical Mars spacecraft is about one million pounds, more than 80% of which is propellant. If you can make it in space rather than lifting it out of the Earth’s deep gravity well, you make the mission vastly less expensive.

2. I agree that the “new path” in the proposed budget has nothing to do with free markets – it is merely the cancellation of one set of federal contracts and the writing of a new set. NASA spending goes up but we get less (and more likely, nothing) than if the original plan had been executed.

3. “More study of Venus”? That planet has an atmosphere of pure CO2 with a surface pressure of 100 bars (roughly the pressure at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean) and a temperature hotter than 700 degrees Fahrenheit. How in any way, shape or form is that analogous to the atmosphere of Earth?

4. In contrast to your “save the Earth” spiel, you seem to be unaware that NASA already has an enormous constellation of Earth resource, weather, climate and magnetosphere monitoring satellites, all of which deluge us with a constant flood of data on the Earth’s temperature, atmosphere, movements, and plasmas on an hourly basis. As far as asteroid collision mitigation goes, there’s nothing wrong with studying this, but it is an event of extremely low likelihood. In any event, the skills we would learn on the Moon would serve us in good stead when we are ready for the long-duration trips (months of transit time) to the nearest asteroids. And by using the Moon as an astronomical observing platform (no disturbing atmosphere; large stable base to emplace sensitive instruments), we can catalog and monitor virtually ALL Earth-crossing objects in size ranges much smaller (i.e., a few meters across) than now possible (hundreds of meters across).

We had a rational, well thought out plan to incrementally move into space using the Moon as an enabling asset. The new plan destroys that and leaves nothing in its place. Some of us think that is not a very good trade.

Posted by Spudis | Report as abusive

There are several misleading arguments in this article, I’ll address some, I’m sure other responders will address others:
1.The ISS has produced significant research in human physiology and psychology in space, and in vehicle construction in space that could be produced in no other lab. That is apart from the ‘regular’ science going on there.
2.Research into alternative launch strategies, including those of private launch vehicles (SpaceX, Orbital) has been, and continues to be, funded through the NASA budget.
3.The “stepping stone” to Mars was metaphorical, not physical (I would expect an author to understand the difference). More research is needed into human adaptability (physical and mental) before we send people off to Mars with no realistic chance of rescue if (when) problems arise. Further, the potential for developing materials processing techniques on the moon could significantly decrease the costs and technological hurdles for a Mars mission.
4.If Russia and China are so far behind, why will they be the only nations with the capacity to launch people to orbit? Why will Russia, Europe, and Japan be able to launch supplies to ISS, but the US not?
5.Yes, asteroids are a threat. But the catastrophic, extinction-level, threat comes not from the NEOs that we can track, and could deflect, but from the outer-solar-system objects that we probably would not see, and could not deflect even if we did. The only safeguard against these is to mature into a space-faring species. Cutting the most ambitious human exploration program, certainly since Columbus, if not the most ambitious ever, in favor of providing private access to low-earth orbit, is a step in the wrong direction if you are worried about asteroids.
There is another enormous problem with the new direction; it comes in education, and it has been overlooked. Project Constellation was exciting. Project Nowhere isn’t. What are its goals? How can we use no-goals to develop interest in math and science for the next generation of scientists and engineers. There is just no vision.

Posted by Educ8Now | Report as abusive

In addition to Spundis’ good points, I have a couple more of my own:

1-If a significant, self sustaining lunar colony could be established, it would make an asteroid defense system less neccessary. If humans lived on more than one celestial body, no single impact could wipe us out.

2-A big reason NASA’s space missions haven’t achieved much in recent years is because there hasn’t been a clear goal. Bush set one for them, and I have no doubt we’d have had as much inovation getting to Mars as we did to the Moon. Now that’s scrapped, and NASA might get a new mission, but why work hard to reach it? The next president will just set a different one in 2013.

Posted by drewbie | Report as abusive

“More study of Venus is needed, too – that planet has a runaway greenhouse atmosphere, and Earth governments are contemplating greenhouse regulation.” – Gregg, I honestly can’t tell if you’re joking. Is this a serious post or another joke?

Posted by commenter5471 | Report as abusive

The costs involved to achieve all of this will amount to trillions of trillions of IMF SDR’s.

Posted by Ghandiolfini | Report as abusive

In life, it is all a matter of priorities, considering that we cannot have everything we imagine might be of value. Should we fix the roof or go on a grand vacation, if we cannot do both? Should we work on bringing up our country’s educational standards or send people off to explore Mars? Should we concentrate on the potential threat from asteroids or the known threat from present trends in Earth’s atmosphere?

Posted by bcrawf | Report as abusive

I like NASA, but…

Thing is, nobody seriously expects NASA to protect the earth from asteroid terror from space, because there isn’t much of one. What there is a lot of in space is militarization, which is where public money has really gone when we could all have been having cocktails on the moon. That, and junk – tons and tons of it liable to cause very serious space accidents, left there by… could it have been… NASA?! Yes, more’s the pity, that “N” might as well stand for space litterer Number one.

If they want to continue drawing an allowance, they should clean up their room already. That, or risk being grounded. Clean up first, then maybe we can have a serious talk about what they ought to be doing for this world in order to have truly earned their keep. Asteroids, my … asteroid.

I for one expect better of NASA. Whatever it is they can do for humankind, it better not involve more weapons, imaginary space terror or leaving any more radioactive cancer crap in orbit.

Posted by HBC | Report as abusive

Richard Branson’s (Virgin Galactic) SpaceshipTwo will take 8 people to 65 miles altitude, and they will do it with private funding. NASA should just hire Virgin Galactic to get us to Mars, and put a NASCAR style NASA sticker on the hood.

Although I agree that NASA is bloated and poorly run, and that we shouldn’t be breaking our necks to get to the moon, I think Gregg should rewrite this one with a little more research.

Posted by Freakishlysmart | Report as abusive

Who says helping Earth and space exploration are mutually exclusive? If we took all the money from space exploration would we put it into helping the Earth? Or just waste it somewhere else? NASA already does a ton for helping the Earth, they have tons of satellites that do atmospheric research etc.

Ask almost any scientist who their heros were as a kid and most will say astronauts. If you take that away children will not have the same inspiration to pursue science then you wont even have people to warn us about the climate. This is are hard concept to perceive so I understand that you can’t comprehend it.

It’s a shame you are allowed to express your uninformed opinion on a respectable news site, but at least you have no real power in politics.

Posted by Rukaribe | Report as abusive

Comparing the greenhouse effect on Venus with that on Canada is stupid. Venus’ atmosphere is 96% CO2 Earth’s atmosphere is .03-.04% CO2. There is nothing that venus can teach us about the atmosphere of the earth because they are completely different. Incomparable.

Posted by KailerMullet | Report as abusive

Regardless of all of the dissent, I completely agree that having the capability as a species, and as the world itself, to divert asteroids would be a monumental accomplishment.

Posted by xavierlax | Report as abusive

wat is ur MySpace site?

lol nice story bro.

Many experienced travelers would actually be given voluntarily, the thrust from the flight and take a later flight the same hour flight destination for a target in the vicinity.
Cork Flights

Posted by Greatsearch | Report as abusive

Just remember, non-refundable tickets are a risk. Even when you know the dates are solid, life happens sometimes. Ask yourself are you prepared to accept the risk before pulling the trigger on a non-refundable ticket.

Posted by Greatsearch | Report as abusive

well actually Congressman McCarthy talks commercial spaceflight. i guess this would happen in the near future :))

http://airsoc.com/articles/view/id/4f232 d7fc6f8fab936000005/congressman-mccarthy -talks-commercial-spaceflight?ev=10&evp= tl

Posted by johnysmith | Report as abusive