Tuesday, February 08, 2005

The cost of manned spaceflight

In Voyage, Stephen Baxter presents an alternate history in which America doesn't stop at the Moon, but presses onwards to Mars. It's a good story, but near the end he lays out the cost of this goal: virtually the entire unmanned space program. Pioneer, Voyager, Galileo, all sacrificed to send four people on a one-off trip to plant a flag. And at that stage of the book, knowing what wonders these missions had discovered, I concluded that it wouldn't have been worth it.

Baxter's book was fiction, but we're seeing the same tradeoff now in NASA's decision to cancel further unmanned missions and bring down the Hubble space telescope in order to spend more money on manned spaceflight development. While I think that manned spaceflight is a great idea, and I'd dearly love to see people on Mars in my lifetime, they're sacrificing one of the most scientifically successful and useful missions ever, and one that has years of life left in it if properly maintained. And like Baxter's alternate history, I just don't think it's worth it. Returning to the moon is a worthy goal, and one I'd like to see reached - but not at this price.

Fortunately, as the story notes, the US Congress has been known to provide money for programs that NASA has decided to cut, and "there is a significant chance that funding for Hubble will be returned to the budget". We can but hope...


I've read a recent article that suggests that it would be cheaper to build a new Hubble (with modern tech) and launch it to replace current-Hubble than it would be to repair and maintain Current-Hubble, and the new tech would vastly speed up some of the research that Hubble is currently doing.

That said, it's still a significant amount of money. I don't think Mars would give the same returns directly, but I would expect that there would be a lot of spin-offs with regard to long-term sustainable environments and possibly space ship design and technology.


Posted by Anonymous : 2/08/2005 11:11:00 PM

Well, I'd obviously prefer to see them do that than just dump the whole idea of an orbitting telescope.

Mars indeed has significant spinoffs in the long-term, and the sort of baby-steps mission they're planning is necessary if we're ever to learn anything from the place, but it is highly irritating to see them dumping something so successful for something which will be basically a patriotic wankfest with little scientific payoff.

And fuck it, Hubble isn't that expensive; it's not something we should have to choose between...

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 2/09/2005 07:59:00 AM