Obama and manned spaceflight


in Economics, Geek stuff, Politics, Science, Space and flight

Apparently, Barack Obama is thinking of curtailing NASA’s future manned spaceflight activities. Specifically, there has been talk of canceling the Ares 1 rocket and scaling back the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle. If true, the news is welcome. There is very little evidence that ongoing manned programs – including the Space Shuttle and International Space Station – are generating useful science or providing other benefits. There is even greater doubt about the usefulness of returning to the moon.

Space exploration is an activity best undertaken by robots. They are cheaper to send up than humans and more capable. Given the very limited value provided by sending live people into space, it is something the United States should discontinue. At the very least, it is something that should be sharply scaled back while the government works to address America’s severe debts and other problems.

{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

Magictofu December 14, 2008 at 9:21 pm

Isn’t there an esthetic/hedonistic value to these missions that goes beyond the realm of science?

Alena December 14, 2008 at 10:22 pm

In the 1960’s, space exploration by the Soviet Union, brought an element of supreme excitement into the lives of the citizens of drab East European countries. As children, we were absolutely fascinated by it and and becoming a cosmonaut was the most sought after profession among children. Over the years, the ability to reach out into space has lost a lot of its lustre and excitement. It was still an amazing achievement which helped us understand our earth better. Maybe we can return to it once we fix our other and more urgent problems.

Milan December 15, 2008 at 8:36 am

I am not saying there is no value at all to be derived from manned spaceflight.

I am saying it provides very poor value for money, at a time when American resources are constrained.

It would be far more prudent to scrap the next generation of manned missions and direct the money towards encouraging green electricity generation than it would be to keep funding NASA’s attempts to put people in space in order to study how to put people in space.

Milan December 15, 2008 at 8:40 am

Maybe we can return to it once we fix our other and more urgent problems.

In the very long run (thousands or tens of thousands of years), manned spaceflight is probably necessary, if only because of the danger the Earth will be wiped out by a comet, asteroid, gamma ray burst, etc.

It seems to me that the real limiting factors on manned spaceflight now are human fragility, and the fragility of our machines. A paint chip or tiny screw in a polar orbit opposite to the one the shuttle or the ISS is in could be enough to kill everyone in the vehicle. If we hope to move well beyond Earth orbit without terrible losses, we will need far more advanced technologies than we have.

Devoting the resources to produce those technologies seems imprudent; waiting for most of them to emerge for other reasons seems comparatively sensible.

Anonymous (anon@anon.com) December 15, 2008 at 7:45 pm

Totally unrelated to the above… bizarre… blowing bubbles

Sarah December 16, 2008 at 10:37 am

One of the arguments commonly made is that manned space flight is the thing most likely to get American kids interested in science & direct them towards a career in this area. As such, a lot of people worry that the defecit in science grads will only get worse if NASA funding is cancelled. Frankly, I suspect that the problems with science education stem from other things, but they may be right that manned space flight helps to boost kids’ imagination & interest in our planet & the universe beyond.

Anon December 16, 2008 at 10:44 am

Hanging on to manned spaceflight in the hopes that it will attract kids to science seems a bit like vodoo education policy.

Surely, the US would be better off taking the money spent on the Shuttle and the ISS and putting it into grants for science textbooks and materials in schools, as well as scholarships in science and engineering.

Magictofu December 17, 2008 at 4:18 pm

I think Sarah and Alena are on to something important here. The social value of manned space flight is hard to measure. I think it is closely related to the way we value art in our society.

Anon December 17, 2008 at 6:18 pm

I don’t deny that manned spaceflight can be inspiring.

I am, however, pretty certain that if you had spent the US$170 billion used for the Shuttle program and the US$100 billion for the International Space Station on full university scholarships for science and engineering, you would have ended up with a lot more American scientists and engineers than you would relying on the voodoo ‘spaceflight as inspiration’ mechanism.

For $270 billion, you could give $50,000 per year (for four years) to 1,350,000 students.

Magictofu December 17, 2008 at 10:11 pm

Anon, I agree with you but these are single examples of what manned space flight can achieve. I am not ready to say that it is worth the billions of dollars that we are investing in it but I really don’t think the main value of it is the science that it produces.

A piece of art is not only worth the material and time spent by the artist and it’s value does not depend either on its decorative properties.

Anon December 17, 2008 at 10:56 pm

In short, manned spaceflight is an extravagance.

Given the state of the public and private finances in the US, now is not the time for extravagant spending.

On a side note, is Magictofu MagicTofu?

. December 18, 2008 at 9:38 am

Want a space shuttle?

Associated Press
December 18, 2008 at 2:30 AM EST

NASA’s soon-to-be-retired space shuttles are up for grabs.

The space agency said Wednesday it’s looking for ideas on where and how best to display its space shuttles once they stop flying in a few years. It’s put out a call to schools, science museums and “other appropriate organizations” that might be interested in showcasing one of the three remaining shuttles.

Beware: NASA estimates it will cost about $42-million (U.S.) to get each shuttle ready and get it where it needs to go, and the final tab could end up much more.

The estimate includes $6-million to ferry the spaceship atop a modified jumbo jet to the closest major airport. But the price could skyrocket depending on how far the display site is from the airport. Only indoor, climate-controlled displays will be considered.

Magictofu December 18, 2008 at 4:45 pm

Anon, Magictofu is Magictofu and I feel you already know too much about me. I should have used a different pseudonym.

. December 20, 2008 at 8:35 pm

Is Obama going to gut NASA?

On the campaign trail a year or so ago, then-Presidential candidate Barack Obama said he would cut NASA money to help fund education. Then he changed his tune, saying he would add money to NASA’s budget to help ease the transition from the Shuttle era — which will end abruptly with the last Shuttle launch in 2010 — to the age of Constellation, NASA’s program for future manned spaceflight using the new Ares rockets, still being designed and built.

. December 30, 2008 at 10:52 am

The Fight Over NASA’s Future

Published: December 29, 2008

“NASA has named the rocket Ares I, as in the god of war — and its life has been a battle from the start.

Ares I is part of a new system of spacecraft being designed by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to replace the nation’s aging space shuttles. The Ares I and its Orion capsule, along with a companion heavy-lift rocket known as the Ares V, are meant for travel to the Moon and beyond.”

. January 4, 2009 at 2:47 pm

Obama Moves To Link Pentagon With NASA

Amiga Trombone sends this quote from the beginning of a story at Bloomberg: “President-elect Barack Obama will probably tear down long-standing barriers between the US’s civilian and military space programs to speed up a mission to the moon amid the prospect of a new space race with China. Obama’s transition team is considering a collaboration between the Defense Department and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration because military rockets may be cheaper and ready sooner than the space agency’s planned launch vehicle, which isn’t slated to fly until 2015, according to people who’ve discussed the idea with the Obama team.”

JMG February 24, 2009 at 3:50 pm

Bob Park, author and former head of American Physical Society, has a great line about the stupidity of trying to do space exploration with people rather than machines.

He says that sending people up to the intl. space station is like putting little bank tellers into ATMs. Absolutely apt. All the money we waste trying to keep humans alive in space is taken directly from robotic research and satellites that could actually tell us something. The entire “mission” of the ISS has devolved to “try and keep the humans alive.” Stupid.

Tristan February 25, 2009 at 12:45 am

I frankly don’t think that how we do our space exploration is nearly as important as the militarization of Space. Do you know if Obama plans on deviating from the Clinton/Bush hard line of blocking international efforts to put some teeth in the treaties which are meant to keep space military-free?

. February 25, 2009 at 12:48 am

“new president’s signaling that he has not decided whether to press ahead with the scheme, or to abandon it. ”


. April 20, 2009 at 10:37 am

Telepresence — Our Best Bet For Exploring Space

“Sending humans to the stars is simply not in the offing. But this is how we could survey other worlds, around other suns. We fling data-collecting, robotic craft to the stars. These proxy explorers can be very small, and consequently can be shot spaceward at tremendous speed even with the types of rockets now available. Robot probes don’t require life support systems, don’t get sick or claustrophobic and don’t insist on round-trip tickets. … These microbots would supply the information that, fed to computers, would allow us to explore alien planets in the same way that we navigate the virtual spaces of video games or wander through online environments like Second Life. High-tech masks and data gloves, sartorial accessories considerably more comfortable than a spacesuit, would permit you to see the landscape, touch objects and even smell the air.”

. April 20, 2009 at 10:38 am

Boldly Going Nowhere

Published: April 13, 2009

Mountain View, Calif.

IT’S a birthright proffered by science and prophesied by “Star Trek,” “Battlestar Galactica” and a thousand other space operas: We’re destined to go to the stars. Our descendants will spread beyond this nondescript solar system and seek adventure and bumpy-headed pals in the stellar realms.

Well, cool your warp jets, Mr. Scott, because we’re not about to breach the final frontier. Piling into a starship and barreling into deep space may long remain — like perfect children or effort-free bathroom cleaners — a pipe dream.

The fastest rocket ever launched, NASA’s New Horizons probe to Pluto, roared off its pad in 2006 at 10 miles per second. That pace would be impressive in the morning commute, and it’s passably adequate for traversing the solar system, something we’ve done and will continue to do. Combustion rockets, like New Horizons, can deliver you to the Moon in a matter of days, Mars in a matter of months, and the outer planets in a matter of years. But a trip to Proxima Centauri, the nearest star beyond the Sun and 100 million times farther from us than the Moon, would consume a tedious 800 centuries or so. You’ll want to upgrade.

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