I’m a little delinquent in responding to this, because Adam Keiper pointed it out to me last weekend, but it’s been a busy week. Gregg Easterbrook is determined to waste my time having to correct him.
There’s no reason right now to go back to the moon, other than as make-work for aerospace contractors. For 30 years, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (nasa) has sent no automated probes to the moon, because no one has proposed anything compelling for even robots to do there.
There are many reasons to go back to the moon. We (literally) barely scratched its surface thirty-plus years ago. There are abundant resources there to potentially establish settlements, to produce clean abundant power, to produce propellant, and for the narrow-minded people (like, apparently, Gregg) who think that the only reason to spend money on space is science, there remains a great deal of science to do there.
Gregg is simply wrong. Many people have proposed things for both people and robots to do. They may not have been compelling to NASA, or Gregg Easterbrook, but neither of those two entities have shown themselves to be reliable indicators as to what is, or should be, compelling to others.
Going from Earth’s surface to orbit requires a lot of energy and is very expensive with existing technology. At the current space shuttle launch price of $20 million per ton, merely placing 1,000 tons of Mars-bound equipment into orbit would cost $20 billion–more than nasa’s entire annual budget. And that’s just the cost to launch the stuff. Design, construction, staffing, and support would all cost much more.
The problem with this is that Gregg remains mired in the belief that Shuttle is “existing technology,” when in fact for the most part it is thirty-year-old technology. As I’ve pointed out before, Shuttle is an absurd benchmark for cost of launch in estimating costs of doing things in space in the twenty-first century.
These are reasons why, when Bush’s father asked nasa in 1989 about sending people to Mars, the Agency estimated a total program cost of $400 billion for several missions. That inflates to $600 billion in today’s money and sounds about right as an estimate
Yes, Gregg, there are reasons why the agency estimated that cost. Reason 1: they decided to use the program to justify everything that every center was doing. Reason 2: they didn’t really want to do it, desiring to continue to focus on space station instead, and they in fact actively lobbied against it on the Hill, an act for which Dick Truly was later canned by George Herbert Walker Bush. Non-reason: it bears some resemblance to what such a program would have to cost.
In fact, it’s absurd to worry about the cost of such a program right now, or to try to stretch absurd examples to attempt to estimate it, as Gregg mistakenly does, in this and other recent articles. We have no idea what it will cost, but that doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be a goal of the nation. When it comes down to actual designs, and plans, and cost estimates, then will be the time to criticize it and decide whether it’s worth the money at that point in time, or to wait until some better plan (or technology) comes along. But it’s pointless to take potshots at it now, and to say that we shouldn’t do it because the Gregg Easterbrooks of the world can’t figure out how to do it cheaply.
One of the frustrating things about Easterbrook is that in any wrongheaded column, he always somehow finds a way to say things with which I agree:
…while a Mars visit would be an exhilarating moment for human history, planning for Mars before improving space technology is putting the cart ahead of the horse. Nasa’s urgent priority should be finding a new system of placing pounds into orbit: If there were some less costly, safer way to reach space than either the space shuttle or current rockets, then grand visions might become affordable.
But it’s still not quite clear if he’s got it right, because I don’t know what he means by “find.” If he means develop a Shuttle replacement that somehow operates more cheaply, this would be another programmatic disaster, but if he means to simply put out basic requirements to the private sector and purchase services from whoever can meet them, then I am in a hundred percent agreement. But I’ve never seen anything in any of his writing to indicate that this is what he as in mind. He seems to remain in the mindset that NASA should do the thing, it’s just that they’re not doing the right one.
As long as he remains stuck in that stale, four-decade-old paradigm, he’ll continue to write uninformed articles like this, in which he occasionally arrives at the right result, for entirely the wrong reason.