The folly of Apollo redux

In an earlier post, I discussed the wastefulness of manned spaceflight. In particular, plans to return to the Moon or go to Mars cannot be justified in any sensible cost-benefit analysis. The cost is high, and the main benefit seems to be national prestige. Human spaceflight is essentially defended in a circular way: we need to undertake it so that we can learn how human beings function in space.

A post on Gristmill captures it well:

Let me be clear. There is a 0 percent chance that this Moon base or anything like it will ever be built, for the following reason: the moon missions in the ’60s and early ’70s cost something like $100 billion in today’s dollars. There is no way that setting up a semipermanent lunar base will be anything other than many times more expensive. That would put the total cost at one to a few trillion dollars.

Assuming that this taxpayer money needs to be lavished on big aerospace firms like Lockheed anyhow, it would be much better spent on satellites for the study of our planet (Some comprehensive temperature data for Antarctica, perhaps? Some RADAR analysis of the Greenland icecap? Some salaries for people studying climatic feedbacks?) or on robotic missions to objects of interest in the solar system.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

22 thoughts on “The folly of Apollo redux”

  1. “Amid all the excitement of buggying around Mars and peeling back the veil of Titan, people sometimes take the mundane yet urgent task of looking after our own planet for granted. NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have really let it slide. In 2005 Janetos’s NRC panel argued that the “system of environmental satellites is at risk of collapse.” The situation then deteriorated further. NASA shifted $600 million over five years from Earth science to the shuttle and space station. Meanwhile the construction of the next-generation National Polar-Orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System ran seriously over budget and had to be downsized, stripping out instruments crucial to assessing global warming, such as those that measure incoming solar radiation and outgoing infrared radiation.

    Consequently, the two dozen satellites of the Earth Observation System are reaching the end of their expected lifetimes before their replacements are ready. Scientists and engineers think they can keep the satellites going, but there is a limit.

    “We could hold out, but we need a plan now,” says Robert Cahalan, head of the Climate and Radiation Branch at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. “You can’t wait till it breaks.”

    If a satellite dies before relief arrives, gaps open up in the data record, making it difficult to establish trends. For instance, if a newer instrument discovers that the sun is brighter than its predecessor found, is it because the sun really brightened or because one of the instruments was improperly calibrated? Unless satellites overlap in time, scientists may not be able to tell the difference. The venerable Landsat series, which has monitored the surface since 1972, has been on the fritz for years, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture has already had to buy data from Indian satellites to monitor crop productivity. For some types of data, no other nation can fill in.

    The NRC panel called for restoring the lost funding, which would pay for 17 new missions over the coming decade, such as ones to keep tabs on ice sheets and carbon dioxide levels—essential for predicting climate change and its effects. The root issue, though, is that climate observations fall somewhere in between routine weather monitoring (NOAA’s specialty) and cutting-edge science (NASA’s). “There’s a fundamental problem that no one is charged with climate monitoring,” says climatologist Drew Shindell of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies. He and others have suggested that the U.S. government’s scattered climate programs be consolidated in a dedicated agency, which would own the problem and give it the focus it deserves.”

  2. In February 2006, officials removed the words “understand and protect our home planet” from NASA’s mission statement. More substantively, NASA’s earth sciences budget has dropped 30 percent while the funding has gone up for the President’s Mission to Mars program.

    Then there is the story behind the Deep Space Climate Observatory. DSCOVR, as it now is known, is a satellite sitting in a warehouse in Maryland, gathering dust rather than climate data. Its original mission was to hold a position in space that would allow it to continuously photograph the sunlit side of the planet, providing scientists with their first direct measurements of the amount of solar energy reaching the Earth and how much is reflected. In addition, DSCOVR would monitor weather systems, vegetation, and other indicators of climate change.

    DSCOVR has one fatal flaw, however. It was conceived by Al Gore, not as an instrument to gather climate data, but to broadcast a constant image of Earth on the internet, which Gore hoped would raise public awareness about the planet and the climate. DSCOVR originally was scheduled to launch in 2001 but Congress, controlled by Republicans at the time, dubbed the satellite “Goresat” and ordered that it be put in storage at the Goddard Space Flight Center. Despite the fact that the U.S. Academy of Sciences judged that DSCOVR would make a “strong and vital” contribution to our understanding of climate change, NASA cancelled the program in January 2006, explaining that “the context of competing priorities and the state of the budget for the foreseeable future precludes continuation of the project.”

    Yet the cost to launch DSCOVR was estimated at $100 million, only one-thousandth the cost of the International Space Station and the “competing priority” apparently is the Mars program. Why Mars should enjoy a higher priority than Earth in the president’s cosmology remains one of the great mysteries of the universe.

  3. on robotic missions to objects of interest in the solar system.

    Definitely! Ever since reading Arthur C. Clarke’s 2010, I have been itching to know what’s on Europa.

  4. Space travel is a frivolity. However, what it means to be human is to desire things you don’t need, that’s the difference between drive and instinct. The Saturn V rocket was one of the most profoundly human things we’ve built, almost pure power for its own sake.

    I fully support this sort of mega-project. I think it’s a much better use of tax dollars than reducing suffering.

  5. The Moon: destination or distraction?

    NASA plans for manned spaceflight re-assessed

    A high-level meeting next week will offer scientists a chance to re-examine NASA’s commitment to human exploration of the Moon. The 12 February workshop is organized by the Planetary Society, a space-exploration advocacy group based in Pasadena, California. It is timed to come four years after President George W. Bush called for a return to the Moon in his Vision for Space Exploration (VSE), and a week after the last of the budget requests with which he might have furthered that vision (see page 610). As such, it might thus mark the opening of the post-Bush era in space exploration.

  6. “DSCOVR killed by Cheney” – NASA Insider

    An unnamed source within NASA intimately familiar with the mothballed Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) mission spoke to Desmog Blog on the condition of anonymity.

    The story is incredible.

    The big question has always been: who would want to kill a $100 million fully completed climate satellite that has sat in a box since the 2000 presidential election – even though dozens of leading scientists have demanded it be launched?

    “Apparently Cheney was the hatchet man”, said the source. “Bush tried the keep his hands clean so he didn’t actually have direct involvement. It almost reminds me of the way Nixon used to operate…He assigned Cheney to be the hatchet man job on DSCOVR… Bush’s fingerprints weren’t on it but Cheney’s were… That’s what we heard through the grapevine.”

  7. NASA ruminating a robot-built lunar outpost to make way for manned missions

    NASA commissioned a study on the feasibility of using little smallish tractor bots to prep a lunar outpost before the humans show up, and the research seems to show it as a good idea. The theoretical plan is for 330 pound mower-sized bots to show up on the moon and prep the surface for actual buildings, landing sites, roads and so forth. The robots are basically glorified tractors (or perhaps simplified tractors) so lunarnauts shouldn’t expect a palace by the time they show up — just a bunch of displaced dirt. Berms seem to be a big theme of construction, since a sort of “blast shield” is needed to make sure debris from takeoff and landing don’t damage the actual settlement.

  8. The Moon? We’re going nowhere, says NASA official

    More cash or new technologies essential

    By Lester Haines

    While this week saw NASA successfully launch its Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite missions to the Moon – designed as an exploratory prelude to a human return to our satellite – a senior NASA official claimed on Wednesday that existing plans to venture beyond low-Earth orbit were doomed without extra cash or new technologies.

    Speaking at a Washington DC public meeting of the human spaceflight review committee, space shuttle programme manager John Shannon described the Constellation programme, comprising the Ares I and V and the Orion capsule, as a “viable architecture” but one which had “not been funded to the level that we would need to see it through”.

    He said: “The congressional budget numbers that have been provided to NASA basically took away the lunar programme.”

    New Scientist notes that the White House budget request for NASA “proposes to freeze the agency’s spending between 2011 and 2014 – eliminating billions of dollars of growth envisioned for those years in previous requests”.

  9. Science: Buzz Aldrin’s Radical Plan For NASA

    “Apollo 11 astronaut (and MIT Astronautics Sc.D.) Buzz Aldrin suggests a bolder plan for NASA (while still remaining within its budget), which he will present to the White House’s Augustine Commission; he sees NASA heading down the wrong path with a “rehash of what we did 40 years ago” which could derail future exploration and settlement. For the short-term, Aldrin suggests canceling NASA’s troubled and increasingly costly Ares I, instead launching manned capsules on commercial Delta IV, Atlas V, and/or SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets. In the medium-term, NASA should return to the moon with an international consortium, with the ultimate goal of commercial lunar exploitation in mind. Aldrin’s long term plan includes a 2018 comet flyby, a 2019 manned trip to a near-earth asteroid, a 2025 trip to the Martian moon Phobos, and one-way trips to colonize Mars.”

  10. Future of NASA’s Manned Spaceflight Looks Bleak

    “Things don’t look good for NASA when the report outlining its future begins: ‘The US human spaceflight program appears to be on an unsustainable trajectory. [NASA] is perpetuating the perilous practice of pursuing goals that do not match allocated resources. Space operations are among the most complex and unforgiving pursuits ever undertaken by humans. It really is rocket science. Space operations become all the more difficult when means do not match aspirations.’ Today the Augustine Commission handed to the White House the Review of US Human Space Flight Plans Committee summary report, after months of expert review and testimony. Many observers expected a bleak report, but ultimately the future of US manned space flight will hinge on how the report’s conclusions are interpreted. Keep in mind too that NASA has spent almost $8 billion of a planned $40 billion to develop systems for a return to the Moon.”

  11. I’ll be honest: I don’t know what the future of NASA is right now. Worse? NASA doesn’t know either.

    Here’s the situation right now. The Shuttle is planned to fly her last mission in September 2010, the end of the fiscal year. The International Space Station is not budgeted beyond 2016 — that was on purpose; the Bush Administration couldn’t guarantee funds beyond then. NASA is constructing hardware for the Constellation program, the Ares 1 and Ares 5 rockets that are planned to pick up where the Shuttle program leaves off. However, there is no way the Ares rockets can be ready before the Shuttle program ends, and in fact 2015 is the earliest it can be used… and the delay is likely to be longer than that. That means there will be a gap in the U.S. capability to get humans into space, and that gap may be 5 years long or more. More money thrown at Constellation won’t shorten the gap; only extending the Shuttle program will. And there really isn’t any meaningful way to do that for more than a year; hardware like launch facilities are already being converted to use by Constellation.

    That’s where we stand.

  12. U.S.: The Ares and the Future of Manned Spaceflight
    October 28, 2009

    The Oct. 28 launch of the Ares I-X, a test vehicle for a new design that may one day replace the space shuttle for putting humans in orbit, comes as the White House is examining the direction for NASA. Whatever decisions are made about that direction will have considerable consequences that will be felt well into the 2020s.

    The credibility of the U.S. ability to put humans into orbit is at stake. As many, including STRATFOR, have already noted, the retirement of the space shuttle could leave a gap in the American ability to put humans in space of five to seven years until the late 2010s. (The last shuttle missions are scheduled for 2010, but may well slip into 2011.) For the remainder of the International Space Station’s (ISS) scheduled service life — currently set to end in 2016 — Russia will be the only country with a proven system capable of taking humans into low-Earth orbit (though some commercial prospects and potential alternatives are under development in the United States). Thus, by the time Ares I is scheduled to become operational, the only place humans would go in low-Earth orbit, the ISS, is slated for decommissioning.

    For our part, STRATFOR considers space and space access to be of critical strategic importance. But the key assets in space at present are unmanned satellites. The implications of a lack of nationally controlled U.S. manned access — though it is certainly noteworthy that the second nation to put a man in space and the first to put a man on the moon will be without it for the first time since then — are not necessarily of immediate strategic concern.

  13. Obama Choosing NOT to go to the Moon

    “Obama’s budget proposal will contain no funding for the Constellation program, which was to send astronauts to the moon by 2020. Instead, NASA will be focused on terrestrial science, such as monitoring global warming. One anonymous official said: ‘We certainly don’t need to go back to the moon.'”

    Obama aims to ax moon mission

    By Robert Block and Mark K. Matthews

    Orlando Sentinel

    12:17 AM EST, January 27, 2010

    NASA’s plans to return astronauts to the moon are dead. So are the rockets being designed to take them there — that is, if President Barack Obama gets his way.

    When the White House releases his budget proposal Monday, there will be no money for the Constellation program that was supposed to return humans to the moon by 2020. The troubled and expensive Ares I rocket that was to replace the space shuttle to ferry humans to space will be gone, along with money for its bigger brother, the Ares V cargo rocket that was to launch the fuel and supplies needed to take humans back to the moon.

  14. Obama Nasa plans ‘catastrophic’ say Moon astronauts
    By Pallab Ghosh
    Science correspondent, BBC News

    Former Nasa astronauts who went to the Moon have told the BBC of their dismay at President Barack Obama’s decision to push back further Moon missions.

    Jim Lovell, commander of the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission, said Mr Obama’s decision would have “catastrophic consequences” for US space exploration.

    The last man on the Moon, Eugene Cernan, said it was “disappointing”.

    Last month Mr Obama cancelled Nasa’s Constellation Moon landings programme, approved by ex-President George W Bush.

    Nasa still aims to send astronauts back to the Moon, but it is likely to take decades and some believe that it will never happen again.

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