Thursday, March 30, 2006

Gregg Easterbrook Hits a Triple

I make fun of Gregg from time to time, so it's only fair that I offer praise when he says something right. He diagnoses NASA's disease pretty well in It's the Earth, Stupid.

At this point, the shuttle exists almost solely to service the space station, while the station exists almost solely to give the space shuttle a destination to fly to. Two space shuttles have exploded on national television. Yet the program drags on owing to the desire of aerospace contractors, and members of Congress who represent shuttle districts, for launches that cost nearly $1 billion each. The shuttle has operated just once since the Columbia loss in February 2003. It may or may not fly in 2006. Most experiments conducted aboard the space station could be done at far less expense by automated probes. "Life science" research on the astronauts themselves is the sole mission that requires people to be present, but even this boils down to billions of dollars spent for astronauts to take each other's blood pressure. As Gar Smith has written, the space station represents "one of the biggest boondoggles since the Pyramids." Despite the dubious rationales for the shuttle and space station, the proposed fiscal 2007 budget fully funds a new round of waste on these programs—about $8 billion, compared with about $5 billion for space probes, Earth study, and study of the distant universe.

Gregg thinks NASA should concentrate on studying the Earth, the Solar system and nearby stars. Bush's moronic Mar's program gets some well deserved slaps too.
As for the moon base, for three decades NASA has sent nothing to the moon, not even a robot probe. That's because the Apollo missions found little to suggest that the moon is interesting, except to geology postdocs. Yet the White House has called for construction of a "manned" moon base—there seems no alternative to that phrasing—and the proposed budget includes about $4 billion in initial moon-base funding. The long-term price may be astronomical, as it were. The program cost (construction, launch, servicing, and ground support) for a stripped-down moon base might hit $200 billion, about the cost of a year of the Iraq war.

Yet it's unclear what astronauts would do at a moon base, other than survive until their return voyage. A moon base would not be useful for a future Mars expedition—quite the contrary, it would be an obstacle. Any Mars-bound mission would almost certainly depart directly from Earth orbit to the Red Planet; stopping at the moon would be counterproductive in terms of propulsion physics and so dramatically raises the price of Mars flight. (The details are here.) NASA is thinking about a moon base solely because Congress appears gullible enough to fund one. Within the halls of the space agency, the manned-space empire is believed to be in jeopardy. NASA wants to sustain the astronaut corps, even at the cost of pretending a moon base makes sense when every NASA official knows it will be a hole to pour money down.

Meanwhile, the proposed budget clobbers programs of tangible value. Hydros, a mission to study soil moisture, would be canceled. At a time when increases in the global agricultural yield are just barely staying ahead of population growth, improving knowledge of our planet's soil moisture seems, oh, 10,000 times more important than paying for astronauts to take samples of the lunar regolith.

The NASA budget also delays by years the Global Precipitation Measurement Mission, which would allow precise tracking of rainfall, especially in places where there are now only estimates, such as over the oceans. The most urgent question regarding global warming is whether it will change global rainfall patterns, as this could impact the agricultural production on which the world's food supply is so perilously balanced.
I quibble with his diagnosis of NASA's lack of interest in the Moon. Moon exploration died to feed those great tapeworms, the shuttle and the space station.

Gregg doesn't like pure science much either. He doesn't like the deep space, nature of the universe stuff. That's the main reason I hold him to a triple. The shuttle and spacestation critique is home run worthy.