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?