Worlds enough, and time: NASA commitee says Mars too costly, asteroids more plausible

Paul Raven @ 26-10-2009

MarsEven someone who struggles as badly with their personal finances as myself would be hard pressed not to realise that NASA finds it hard to balance its lofty ambitions with the number of greenbacks in the jar on the mantelpiece. Now the Agency’s recently-appointed committee is saying the same thing in plain language: the money for a Mars mission just isn’t there, but more realistic goals like jaunts to asteroids and the Lagrange points can and should be followed up.[image by jasonb42882]

Now, I’d like to see manned Mars missions happen in my lifetime (as I’ve made plain here a number of times), but I’d rather that the planet’s biggest player in the space game got the maximum bang for its diminishing buck. As things stand now, everyone else follows where NASA leads, and while that won’t be the case for ever (or even for long, if you want to be a pessimistic realist about it), and I’d rather see them pushing the envelope steadily than trying to blast heroically through it. Watch the private space companies, as Brenda suggested the other day; those incremental baby steps soon start adding up.

And after all, there’s plenty of interesting stuff to do that doesn’t require a jag all the way to Mars. As the committee’s report points out, asteroids are easier to get to, and there’s still plenty they can teach us. Plus there are resources to be had; maybe NASA could balance the books a bit by slinging some or all of an asteroid back to Earth? A big lump of ice and minerals in close proximity to the home planet is the sort of thing a lot of the smaller fry would pay for a piece of, and it would be a handy thing to have in inventory for your own future works at the top of the gravity well (and beyond). And then there’s the the Lagrange points… depending on your focus, you could either do some good science out there, or get all Ben Bova on our asses with hotels and heavy industry.

Thinking pragmatically, the committee are right: Mars can wait, not just for NASA but for everyone. We should go, yeah, but we should go when we’re ready and able. As this rather charming infographic at BoingBoing shows, our success rate has been improving ever since we started trying to reach the Red Planet… but by trying to punch above our current weight, maybe we’re missing out on flooring some more manageable targets closer to home.

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4 Responses to “Worlds enough, and time: NASA commitee says Mars too costly, asteroids more plausible”

  1. The Abbot of Unreason says:

    It is precisely the risky, non-pragmatic, envelope bursting goals that NASA should be running after. Leave the lucrative, investment-style exploration to the commercial industry. That’s what they’re good at. NASA should be doing the things that the commercial sector wouldn’t touch, not competing with it.

  2. Paul Raven says:

    Historically, yes, I’d agree with you. The point is that they’re all out of cash, though, and I doubt there’ll be budget increases coming down the pike any time soon; they’re already outsourcing their cargo runs to the commercial operators. I think it’s a case of compete or die.

  3. The Abbot of Unreason says:

    Once they start having to compete they _should_ die, IMHO. The vision should be to do what nobody else is going to do. Fine, if they have less money, try something smaller, but it still shouldn’t be something someone else is going to do anyway: that’s just as much a waste of resources.

  4. John Hunt says:

    The purpose for Apollo going to the Moon was primarily for bragging rights. Sample returns could have been done for far less. But still, that was an amazing accomplishment which I think justified the cost. But after the bragging rights were obtained, the diminishing returns on science made the Apollo program unjustifiable.

    An asteroid can be sampled robotically (using a robonaut for example) for far less cost than sending people. So it is not really the science that demands such a venture. As far as bragging rights, since a manned mission to an asteroid is a fair step down from Apollo’s trip to the moon, those rights are far smaller and hence susceptible to being cancelled. Bringing back a chunk of a volatile NEO might help if that were possible. A manned trip to a martian moon would be a greater accomplishment but would suffer from the realization that it was prominently falling short of where we really need to go which is Mars.

    What we really need is a purpose which justifies expenses. For me this means these three things: 1) survival, 2) development, and 3) colonization. Specifically, I don’t think that science and bragging rights are sufficient justification for manned flights.

    Survival should be # 1 in my opinion. By mid-century, we’ll be facing self-replicating technology from nanotech, biotech, AI, and self-replicating chemicals. It would sure be nice if we had a self-sustaining base off-planet by then. This goal would mandate continued funding until that goal was achieved. Survival also has a time urgency about it which helps.

    Development of a Moon base would provide access to large quantities of raw materials enabling all manner of LEO, lunar, martian and other ventures.

    Finally, if the goal is colonization of Mars, then the first trip will require a second trip and then a third, etc. Defunding midway through establishing a colony would mean losing the value of the previous trips even while one is getting closer to the goal.

    When I think of these goals, the idea of going off to an asteroid leaves me wondering why?