Gregg Easterbrook gets it half right, sort of, which is usually the case when he pontificates about space policy.
Once again, he uses Shuttle as the exemplar of launch costs to argue that we can’t afford a lunar base. In addition, his numbers are simply pulled out of the air, or perhaps some danker, less sanitary location–I don’t want to know…
He also remains hung up on science as the raison d’etre of doing such things, and assumes that the ISS is representative of what a space station should or could cost, which is just as absurd as using Shuttle costs for the estimates.
Now, I’m not a big proponent of sending NASA off to build a moon base, but if one is going to argue against it, it should be done for sound policy reasons, not financial handwaving.
He finishes up with one final flawed argument:
A Moon base would actually be an impediment to any Mars mission, as stopping at the Moon would require the mission to expend huge amounts of fuel to land and take off but otherwise accomplish nothing, unless the master plan was to carry rocks to Mars.
This misses the point. The purpose of doing a lunar base is to learn how to do planetary bases in general, in a location that’s only two or three days from earth if something goes wrong, not to provide a way station on the way to Mars. And of course, it’s possible that we might be able to generate propellant on the moon. If that’s the case, and it can be done for less cost than lifting it from earth, then the moon may indeed be a useful staging base for deep-space missions.
I do agree with his last graf, though, as far as it goes.
NASA doesn’t need a grand ambition, it needs a cheap, reliable means of getting back and forth to low-Earth orbit. Here’s a twenty-first century vision for NASA: Cancel the shuttle, mothball the does-nothing space station, and use all the budget money the two would have consumed to develop an affordable means of space flight. Then we can talk about the Moon and Mars.
My only quibble is that this should not be interpreted as giving NASA the money to develop the affordable means of space flight. That will simply result in another attempt at another single monoculture vehicle that will leave us no better off than Shuttle. It should be given to people who have the motivation and organization to do so, probably via prizes or other forms of market guarantees.
[Via Tyler Cowen]