nasa just can’t please anyone…

NASA is caught between doing science and pleasing skeptical penny-pinchers.
nasa astronaut on fire

Maybe not exactly. Plenty of scientists and space enthusiasts are very happy with how well the missions for Spirit and Opportunity have been going. The rovers have outlived their original mission time by years, no small feat on an alien world that usually covers solar panels with a thick coat of talcum fine dust in just three months. (I wonder why no one installs a mechanical brush to clean the dust off.) And with the Phoenix landing safely and accurately and getting to the detailed science of Martian ice and soil, NASA seems to be showing that they can land better and better on the surface of another planet. Before the twin rovers, about a third of all missions to Mars would vanish or crash-land. In fact the rovers were built as duplicates of each other in case one crashes.

But space watchers and space-agnostic taxpayers arent thrilled. Phoenix costs $420 million. The twin rovers cost about $800 million to build and an extra $20 million per year to operate. For the space watchers, the $1.3 billion spent on flights to Mars are way too little, the scientific research is too slow and the technology isnt moving fast enough for manned spaceflight. The space agnostics on the other hand are stunned that the government spends so much money on sending robots to another planet to look at some ice and rocks. To them, this money is sacrilegiously wasted. And just like all groups with opposing views on a subject, they talk right past each other, missing the problems with their own arguments.

Hey, were trying to build a civilization here, say the space enthusiasts. We need to become a space faring species and you troglodytes are penny pinching with the future of the human race to buy a new TV.

Oh yeah? reply the space agnostics. Well youre nothing but a bunch of spendthrifts who just want to waste money we need on flying tin cans to take pictures of red rocks and blue ice. And that government! Over a billion bucks on three robots? I tell you those government programs are so badly managed

But there is one thing they agree on. Private enterprise should be involved in space exploration. The idea is that corporations are much less bureaucratic, work faster and are driven by people who dream big and do big things. Modern day examples are SpaceX launched by Elon Musk, the co-founder of PayPal and Virgin Galactic started by Richard Branson,, creator of the UK’s Virgin hyper-brand. Then theres the muscle behind Virgin Galactic, Burt Ruitans Scaled Composites backed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. Theres also Bigelow Airspace which is successfully launching inflatable space habitats. There’s also the fact that almost all of the technology being launched into space today has been put together by big defense contractors such as Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Boeing.

With the billions in private equity coming from vast pools of cash designated for investments into new ventures and experience already there, it seems logical that private industry should be working on the future of space travel rather than the government taking citizens money to run a space program.

However, its not quite this simple. Space X, which just launched its first craft, is still using good old fashioned chemical rockets to launch cargo into near Earth orbit. Theyre just trying to do it cheaper. Virgin Galactic will only be offering short jaunts into space for tourists who can afford to pay the $200,000 fare for a few hours of what is spaceflight only by technical definition. The people of Bigelow Airspace want to create space hotels for the tourists and defense contractors whove already built space craft, need clients to pay for all of the materials and labor needed to assemble launch vehicles and space probes. With the exception of Scaled Composites, theyre far from creating radically new technology for launching things into orbit. Theyre businesses first and foremost and that means their flights need to make a profit sooner rather than later. To do something that requires no immediate ROI and is done for a combination of obscure or highly technical scientific research and prestige (how many nations have landed a vehicle on Mars?), you need either philanthropists with billions to give away or a government.

Right now, the new class of super-philanthropists are giving to education, healthcare, arts and to combat the war, famine and illness in Africa. Space is not a major priority for them. This only leaves the government which usedsome $6 billion per year on space missions in 2008. Almost all of this was used for the ISS and the Space Shuttle program. All of the missions to Mars were just a small siphon from the money left over after the shuttle and ISS expenses were covered for the year. (see page 10) The government hauls in around $2.5 trillion, almost a million times more than the amount spent annually to build and support new interplanetary missions. It sure sounds like there are more places where money is being wasted than on three Martian robots.

As for space enthusiasts pleading for science to move at a faster clip, they must realize that technology used for space travel is very complex and takes a long time to build and test. Were not moving as fast as we could be, but lets remember that the entire US space program was based on competing with the USSR and beating the Soviets to the moon. As soon as Apollo 12 landed in the Pacific Ocean after its brief stay on the Moon, people began asking whether it was wise to spend a few billion per flight to walk on another world since the USSR was now behind in the space race. Space today is still a political domain and a source of pride, prestige and as of recently, even military prowess.. As long as people think of spaceflight as something to show the other countries whos boss, it wont be a top priority when scientific research of anything existential and esoteric comes up.

# space // government / nasa / private space / space exploration

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