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Sunday, August 07, 2005

space program blues

Over at Idle Words, Maciej Ceglowski has harsh words for NASA:
[...] the great explorers of the 1500's did not sail endlessly back and forth a hundred miles off the coast of Portugal, nor did they construct a massive artificial island they could repair to if their boat sprang a leak. And we must remember that space is called space for a reason - there is nothing in it, at least not where the Shuttle goes, save for a few fast-moving pieces of junk from the last few times we went up there, forty years ago. The interesting bits in space are all much further away, and we have not paid them a visit since 1972. In fact, despite an ambitious "Vision for Space Exploration", there seems to be no mandate or interest in pursuing this kind of exploration, and all the significant deadlines are pushed comfortably past the tenure of incumbent politicians.
I have a fondness for NASA that is rather in conflict with my political philosophy, but there is little in the above essay that I can argue with. NASA has gotten so bad that there is little doubt that we would be better off if we zeroed out its budget and sold off its assets to the highest bidder.

Ceglowski suggests that the manned space program has actually been harmful to advances in technology for such exploration:
But this attitude is actually doing damage to the prospects of real manned space exploration. Sinking half the NASA budget into the Shuttle and ISS precludes the possibility of doing truly groundbreaking work on space flight. As the orbiters age, their upkeep and safety requirements are becoming an expensive antiquarian exercise, forcing engineers to spend their ingenuity repairing obsolete components and devising expensive maintenance techniques for sclerotic spacecraft, rather than applying their lessons to a new generation of rockets. The retardant effect the Shuttle has had on technology (like the two decades long freeze in expendable rocket development) outweighs any of its modest initial benefits to materials science, aerodynamics, and rocket design.
This is where Ceglowski's analysis starts to fall short. He imagines a NASA free from the foolish decisions of the past, concentrating on real science and technology. But surely, it is the very nature of NASA, a government bureaucracy, the prevents it from behaving in an rational manner. There are more problems with NASA that can't be covered in a blog post. Ceglowski doesn't even mention that NASA underbid private launchers during the early days of the shuttle program, thus crippling the unmanned launch industry.

Ceglowski does praise NASA's unmanned space efforts, but these are questionable efforts as well. I'm as fascinated as anyone by cool pictures from Mars and Titan, but are these truly worth the millions (or billions in the case of Cassini) that we are spending on them? And even if the science is objectively good, there's no reason that we have to do them right now, as opposed to twenty years from now, when even better technology will be available, perhaps even a privately funded space elevator, that would allow a far more capable, but cheaper mission to be done. If the cost is sufficiently low in the future, then there is no reason that such efforts could not be entirely funded by private groups, just as observatories are often funded privately today.

Sorry, NASA, but I just can't think of a justification for taking money from the taxpayers at gunpoint to fund your missions, even if I personally think some of them are cool.

Spotted via Brad DeLong.

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