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« Another Thing To Worry About | Main | Do Journalists Need Editors? »


Mark Whittington is appropriately skeptical of the notion that obscure astrophysical discoveries will energize the public and maintain support for the Vision for Space Exploration:

As interesting as such things [as a magnetar explosion] are, I'm afraid that NASA need something else besides that to sustain public interest. I had never heard of this discovery before I read it in Blandford's piece. It certainly did not supplant the death of the Pope, or Terri Schiavo or (please God) the Michael Jackson trial.

However, like the scientist he criticizes, he's much too unobjective and overenthusiastic himself when he continues:

A human return to the Moon this year would have done all of those things.


What's so exciting about NASA sending a few government employees back to the Moon? NASA's been there, did that, got the hat, a third of a century ago. The public found it boring then. Why, in the twenty-first century, amidst the explosion of technological wonders that we've seen since, would they get jazzed about it now? What would make it so newsworthy as to knock the death of a great Pope off the headlines? Why is NASA astronauts walking around on the Moon any more fascinating to a modern, jaded public than NASA astronauts circling the earth in a can, something that is never in the news unless something goes wrong?

I can tell you that, as a die-hard space enthusiast, I sure can't get excited about it. In fact, I don't think that the current VSE, at least as put forth by some of the major contractors (and like the Shuttle and ISS), is worth the money. And I (unlike most of the public) actually know what a tiny percentage of the federal budget it constitutes. If Mark can't sell me on it, why does he think that those who don't have that much interest in space (the vast majority, at least when it comes to relative depth of interest), and think that NASA consumes half the federal budget, will be excited?

I will tell you what might have knocked those other things off the headlines, at least temporarily (at least based on the response to the SpaceShipOne flights)--if Paul Allen walked on the Moon, with his own money, and was selling tickets so that others could do so.

[Update at 11:20 AM EDT]

Mark replies with a post that's mostly straw.

The way the Vision for Space Exploration is shaping up will make it a bit different than Apollo. It will not, ultimately, consists of just "a few government employees."

That remains to be seen. My point (and my only point, really) is that contra Mark's claim, NASA astronauts walking on the Moon per se will not excite the public much more than space science discoveries, or knock other stories out of the news. I think that most people are pretty jaded about technological advances, unless they can see how they'll actually affect their own lives. If NASA can show how astronauts on the Moon will do that, then it may be sustainable. If they can't, it will be Apollo redux.

I do think he sells people short, projecting his feelings and assuming that most people share them. I think (again) the polling data backs me up.

That's pretty amusing, considering that I think that's exactly what he's doing. I'm not aware of any polling data that backs him up. He'll have to show some, rather than simply asserting it, if he wants to convince me or (I would hope) my readers.

By the way, he also has a new column about the promise of Mike Griffin.

[One more update, at 11:55]

I should add that when Mark writes in comments that "It's virtually certain that the first human return to the Moon will be the biggest story of the next decade," he displays a paucity of imagination about potential stories of the next decade (and once again confuses his own interests and preferences for those of the masses).

Bigger than a cure for cancer? Or indefinite life extension? Or artificial intelligence, or artificial life? Or the opening of a major LEO space hotel by Disney? Or a major terrorist attack killing thousands or millions? Or a 9+ earthquake in Seattle? Things like that will be knocked out of contention simply by a repeat of something we already did a third of a century ago?

I seriously doubt it.

Posted by Rand Simberg at April 13, 2005 05:40 AM
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I have to say that sending man back to the moon would be exciting for me. However, I am 30 years old. Man going to the moon was a given when I was born in 1975. When the Challenger blew up I was 11. That was a continuing downward spiral, depressing my generation who grew up being told the stars were our future and have only seen that future slip further and further away. A trip to the moon would be an inspiration that things were finally changing.

The more pragmatic side of me would like to hear that a trip to the moon is the first stage of a trip to Mars. I'd also like to hear NASA commit to doing only things that the private sector cannot. That means abandoning or outsourcing (but funding) the shuttle, ISS, and low earth orbit. For scientific research missions they should plan and fund the missions but leave the launching to private enterprise. NASA has always been about pushing the envelope. But part of that means forcing the more mature technologies to be developed by private enterprise, freeing up NASA resources for the uncharted goals like Mars, asteroid mining, and the outer solar system.

Posted by Joshua Marinacci at April 13, 2005 05:57 AM

I don't know. What make millions upon millions of people so excited about the two rovers currently on Mars? (As evidenced by NASA reported web hits). I mean we've been there before...

Posted by Dan Schrimpsher: Space Pragmatism Blogger at April 13, 2005 06:50 AM

What make millions upon millions of people so excited about the two rovers currently on Mars? (As evidenced by NASA reported web hits).

It doesn't take "millions upon millions of people" to generate a lot of web hits. Just a lot of people hitting the same site a number of times.

If that's your criteria for public interest level, then NASA should be funding new technologies for porn. And it's beside the point, since I haven't noticed Mars rovers knocking other news off the front page lately.

Posted by Rand Simberg at April 13, 2005 07:14 AM

It really doesn't matter what gets splashed on the front page, because something else will be there the next day. This isn't about getting headlnes.

If someone goes to the Moon in an Apollo-redux effort, it really doesn't make much difference if it's Paul Allen or some NASA employees. What really counts is building the economic infrastructure to turn that one-off stunt into a repeatable commercial commodity. If Allen, Rutan, et al, can do that, more power to them.

Posted by billg at April 13, 2005 07:27 AM

This isn't about getting headlnes.

It is if you're NASA trying to get more funding. But then, that's part of the problem with NASA -- they're not even playing a bad game well.

Posted by McGehee at April 13, 2005 07:39 AM

I have to say that sending man back to the moon would be exciting for me.

You, like Mark, confuse what excites you with what excites the general public.

Posted by Rand Simberg at April 13, 2005 07:42 AM

Of course it could be said that Rand confuses what bores him with what bores the general public. It's virtually certain that the first human return to the Moon will be the biggest story of the next decade. Of course, people could become bored if it becomes a dead end program like Apollo turned out to be. I don't think that's going to happen, though.

Posted by Mark R. Whittington at April 13, 2005 08:23 AM

Polls done last year, by the way, by both the Gallup Organization and the Dittmar Group show wide support for sending humans beyond Low Earth Orbit and even spending more money to do it (according to the latter poll.)

Posted by Mark R. Whittington at April 13, 2005 09:02 AM

So? A vast majority of people support all kinds of government initiatives. That doesn't mean that they drop everything they're doing, or want to stop watching Michael Jackson's trial to go watch on television when they come to some partial fruition.

Posted by Rand Simberg at April 13, 2005 09:05 AM


I'm a huge fan of lunar development, but I have to agree with Rand here. The most the next NASA lunar landing is likely to get out of me is a yawn.....

.....unless I'm too busy saying "Hey guys, welcome to Luna City. How was the flight? Would you guys like a tour of the spaceport, or do you want me to take you to your rooms? Don't worry, 16B will be ready for you guys to move your equipment in no later than tomorrow. One of our power tools got jammed, and the replacement parts won't be up until the weekly Prometheus flight......"


Posted by Jonathan Goff at April 13, 2005 09:49 AM

I have to agree with Rand on this one. Simply slingshotting a human team to the moon or mars may hold the populations interest for a short period of time until the next murder/suicide bombing, But, it will not be a major ongoing news event in the grand scheme of things.

Now, I'm no Astro-physicist, Rocket Scientist or have any type of degree in the Sciences. But what I do have and share with the rest of humanity is a curiosity for the unknown, hence my visitis here are more for a bit of knowledge from those with this expertise.

My take on the "Vision for Space Exploration" is that it is fatlly flawed in its approach. The percieved ends of the "Vision" in the publics eye is the exploration of the moon or mars, by what ever means available with the current technologies. I say the "current technologies" only because it is very evident by the posts here and the hardware on our current space vehicles that NASA and the powers that be find it extremely difficult to incorporate breaking, or new tech into current projects.

We all know we have the capability to create a canister, large enough to house a crew, and a life support system capable of sustaining them for a trip to and from the moon or mars, we've done it before. We also know that we are far from perfect getting those crews and containers into space and safely returning them. Shouldn't we as a people be perfecting our ability to attain "LEO".

Why are we going there?
What are the potential gains for society as a whole?
What will the public gain from this project?

These are all questions that will have to be answered by the Leadership to gain the funding needed.

My personal view on the "Vision for Space Exploration" is that it is a nicely calculated project developed by this administration to mirror the leadership of JFK and NASA. My feelings on the best way to promote a real exploration of space is to tackle the "Gorilla standing in the Corner of the room", which is in my opinion the vast distances involved in space travel and the time required to transit these distances. Americans and the world in general have a very short attention span, and having a crew embark on a 6 to 12 month mission to just get to mars will be a minor blip on the radar of the news, unless of course the crew is in danger than all bets are off.

So my recomendations are to do the research, in space, to develope alternation propulsion methods so that we may explore the cosmos in one lifetime rather than 20.

Thats just my opinion, and i have never been wrong,(just kidding).

Posted by Danford at April 13, 2005 12:17 PM

> The way the Vision for Space Exploration is shaping up will make it a bit
> different than Apollo. It will not, ultimately, consists of just
> "a few government employees."

What Mark refuses to acknowledge is that Project Apollo made that very same promise. The PR departments made all kinds of claims about what Apollo would lead to. Yet, contrary to Mark's belief, the government Moon program did not wither away to be replaced by true communism.

Furthermore, the current Vision does *not* promise to open space to non-government employees. That's a "non-goal" (in modern managementspeak). The Aldridge Commission specifically stated that "human spaceflight will remain the province of government." The role of private industry is described as merely "participating" in the government program (as Boeing, Lockheed, and other contractors have done for decades).

> I will tell you what might have knocked those other things off the headlines, at
> least temporarily (at least based on the response to the SpaceShipOne flights)
>--if Paul Allen walked on the Moon, with his own money, and was selling tickets
> so that others could do so.

Mark no doubt regards such a thing as impossible -- just as he apparently regarded SpaceShip One as impossible. (Only a few days before Mike Melvill won his civilian astronaut wings, Mark was still writing that failure to fund Constellation would mean an end to US manned spaceflight.)

Posted by Edward Wright at April 13, 2005 01:32 PM

Jonathan, I think the chances of anyone building a "Luna City" in the next ten years are effectively nil.

Let's be clear: moving into space will not be like the development of aviation in the 20th century. It will be as complex and challenging and as rewarding as opening and settling the American West. There'll be roles for both government and the private sector. One shouldn't hold space travel hostage to faith in any ideology.

Posted by billg at April 13, 2005 02:10 PM

What would excite me? The Great Space Race! A billion dollar prize for the first private explorers to go to the moon and return safely with a verified sample of Lunar soil and a Homesteading Claim for x acres on the Moon. A two billion dollar prize for establishing the first successful permanent base on the Moon. (No prize for unsuccessful losers) A three billion dollar prize for staking a claim to Mars by squatter's rights. Forget the UN's idea about no property rights off the Earth. It's a useless idea anyway.

The MacRobertson Trophy Race was won by the a specially built DeHaviland Comet. Second place went to a DC3. I think there is a message there.

Posted by John F at April 13, 2005 03:21 PM

Headlines, public interest and manned spaceflight sustainability

The issue of private spaceflight, which I am all in favor of, is an overlapping but separate issue from what to do with NASA. The importance of headlines is how does that relate to public interest in manned spaceflight and how does that public interest relate to sustained support for NASA manned spaceflight? The simple answer is it doesn't matter.

Despite all the concern that VSE could not keep going over a period of many different administrations and election cycles, it is not a realistic fear. How long and over how many election cycles has the Shuttle and Space Station kept going despite their failures and despite their go nowhere destinations? The Shuttle project has kept going for over 30 years and likely to go on another five years before it is over. That's over seven different Presidencies, five switches of majority control of the Senate and one switch of majority control of the House.

So long as budgeting for the VSE stays within the bounds everyone is used to for the Shuttle and Space Station, the VSE could go on indefinitely. And that doesn't even take into account the more exciting prospects of the VSE compared to the Shuttle and Space Station. Once VSE is entrenched, regular pork barrel politics will ensure it keeps going and going and going like the energizer bunny.

Of course a major budget crash from social security or medicare imploding post 2020 would derail NASA and the VSE, but if so we will have bigger problems to deal with than manned spaceflight. And even if that budget disaster happens with any luck by 2020 a private space infrastructure may have grown up alongside the VSE to carry on should NASA get zeroed out.

Posted by Brad at April 13, 2005 07:20 PM

Hmm, NASA porn...that's IT! Bring me your saggies, your droopies, yearning to fly free...ARRRGH! My eyes!

Posted by JSAllison at April 14, 2005 12:23 PM

How much of the decline of the Apollo program during the late seventies was also attributed to the culural depression of the U.S. during that time?

The 70's was a rather long period of time where people just genuinely felt shame for being an American. So, much so that something so seemingly minor as a group of College kids beating the Soviets in Olympic hockey was looked upon as a rare gem of national pride. The embarrassment of Vietnam, gas shortages, pollution/smog also contributed to the idea that we were a country of excess and needed to level off on over ambitious or literal pie in the sky ideas of living on the Moon.

Posted by Josh "Hefty" Reiter at April 14, 2005 02:18 PM

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