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Friday, May 6, 2016

WHAT WE SHOULD BE DOING IN OUTER SPACE

We all dream.  Some of us are better able to synthesize the present and visionize the future.  But there is always the reality, for money, technology, politics and a range of other factors complicate the process.  In 1902 Georges Melies produced A Trip to the Moon.  Clearly, the technology was not quite there then, so it took 67 more years, spurred by the Cold War, for Neil Armstrong to walk on the Moon.

Some have suggested that the Soviet Union's attempts in space helped bankrupt the country, so our strategy to end the Cold War using outer space actually worked.  The Apollo Project, costing $20 billion then, but valued at around $160 billion today, was money well spent.

The next great opportunity appears to be a mission to Mars.  But do we have the technology, and more importantly, compelling need to get there today?  All signs scream that some transitory objective at this time makes a lot more sense.  Satellites, clearly, have changed our everyday life, and something similar might be worth attaining.

Yet, Americans seem to favor some Mars initiative by a 74% to 26% vote.  But that is because they go to films like The Martian, and think, heck, why not.  They're mostly delusional.

Maybe I'm missing some hidden agenda, as perhaps Elon Musk desiring to own Mars.  Well:

telegraph.co.uk
The Outer Space Treaty gives every country the responsibility for making sure its citizens abide by the treaty, and explicitly rules out ownership of celestial bodies, and requires the member states to supervise the activities of their citizens in space to make sure they comply with it.

Musk must have other reasons and is definitely committed.  He formed SpaceX in 2002, and now has 5,000 employees in a company said to be worth at least $12 billion.    He has said:

...that by 2035 at the latest, there will be thousands of rockets flying a million people to Mars, in order to enable a self-sustaining human colony.[70]



As Melies more than a century ago, we again are faced with a desire without capability:  simply, engineers have not yet perfected the technology to send humans safely to Mars and back, and won't for some time to come.  Second, there is no compelling reason to do so.  If, say, China and Russia suddenly form a coalition, and begin spending hundreds of billions annually to claim Mars because it has a strategic or resource value that would mean the end of the USA, sure, we will be forced to do the same.   While Musk will have millions going to Mars in less than 20 years, China and Russia could well have been as bullish, but the best they currently offer are similar plans that sometime between 2040 and 2060 they hope to send a crew to the Red Planet.  Good luck Elon.

Someday, perhaps, we will need to take outer space more seriously for habitation and/or resources.  But maybe a millennium or so from now, not today.  Here is a colorful vision by Brummbaer of life on Mars.

So to finish this discussion, let me say that we have already too much so invaded Mars:


You can read the details by clicking on it, but why.  Here are all the Mars missions since 1960, and more than half have FAILED.  When we actually robotically got there, no evidence of life was found.  Conditions are harsh.  Every so often, during budget influence cycles, NASA leaks to the media something about the potential for water or maybe a Happy Face.

For the present, we should limit our outer space exploits, tax money and billionaires' resources to better utilize space near or on Planet Earth.

However, the International Space Station has become a white elephant.  Already 18 years out there, after an expenditure of $150 million, it has yet to develop even one successful commercial operation.  Worse, the expectation is that the ISS will crash back to Earth within the decade.

So do we just abandon space and eliminate NASA?  Of course not.  There remains a whole host of topics worthy of pursuit.  From confirmation of Dark Energy/Matter to astrobiology to killer asteroids, the space landscape is dotted with priority interest areas awaiting funding support.   Here are NASA's historical expenditures.

But, typical for spending over time, there is great distortion, for the real value of that red  peak in 1967 of $17.5 billion, in 2016 dollars, is about $128 billion.  More recently, $7 billion/year can be afforded by our country (about one half of one percent of the U.S. budget) to continue cutting edge science, plus an expanded Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.  

The James Webb Space Telescope will eventually cost $10 billion just by itself, but we have been jerking this project along for two decades and should have it in space hopefully in 2018, so send it out.  But that should be it for a while.  Major hardware expenditures should be kept to a bare minimum.  The problem with this policy, though, is that as aerospace companies do the heavy lobbying for NASA (for they get most of these funds), deleting this pork item will only convince Congress to further deplete the NASA budget.

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