Monday, September 26, 2005

NASA: Back To The Moon

NASA recently unveiled its plans to return men to the moon. You can find details of the plan linked off of NASA's homepage. The plan is to return men to the moon by 2018, at an estimated cost of about $104B. There are three aspects of the plan that I find raise interesting questions?

Is 2018 too long to wait?

At first, my initial thought was, "Yes." Thirteen years is a long time for political pressures to point to the space exploration as wasteful and unnecessary. (By comparison, the Apollo program took 8 years.) As short-sighted as such views may be, expecting them is only prudent. Upon reading more of the details of the plan, I'm a little heartened. Non-manned missions start much sooner (within five years). If these missions can capture the spirit of the American people as some of the Mars reconnaissance missions have, then I feel better about the chances of the program continuing to fruition.

Is $104B too expensive?

I would have to say no, for three reasons. First, $104B spread out of 13 years is only $8B a year. In terms of the federal budget, $8B is a rather insignificant amount. Second, NASA administrator Griffin has said that no increase in the NASA budget is being requested. His quote at the announcement press conference was:
Griffin said he is not seeking extra money and stressed that NASA will live within its future annual budgets of $16 billion. Funding within the human spaceflight program will be redirected to achieve this goal, and not "one thin dime" will be taken from science projects, he said.
Third, the total cost represents 55% of what the Apollo program would have cost today, adjusted for inflation.

Is the new launch vehicle a step backwards in technology?

The new plan calls for a new launch vehicle--one that splashes down in to the ocean as opposed to the more controlled landing exhibited by the space shuttle. It is tempting to want to see a more sophisticated vehicle. For years, articles have been written about advance concept vehicles that take off and land as a plane, using new engine technologies such as scramjets. I have to remind myself that "more advanced" is not always better.

As a perhaps odd example, consider Dell computers when they first started. They were heralded as changing the industry, letting people order a customized computer directly on the web. But it is my understanding that that actual process was not as advanced as it appeared. An order placed on the web showed up on a display in front of an operator at Dell. The operator would take the information in the order and retype it in on an old-style green-screen display that was actually linked to the factory. The automated web order was actually not automated at all. Such a system is clearly not the most advanced possible, but the point is that it worked; it worked so well that Dell now dominates the home computer market.

Overall, I would say I'm satisfied with the plan. Perhaps most importantly, I'm grateful there is a plan at all. I continue to believe that space exploration is important and, at the current costs, a fantastic investment.

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