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Opening Arguments

Spaced out?

I've written several times that space exploration is one of those government programs I don't mind paying for. The public sector has funded the human need to expand our horizons since the time of Columbus. So I was dismayed when I heard Persident Obama might be cutting the money for a return to the moon, especially since it sounded like one of those tired, typical "Why should we waste billions on such extravagances when there are so many problems in our back yard?" arguments. Instead of going to the moon, NASA would be funded to . . . more closely monitor global warming. Good Lord -- talk about keeping the cave you're huddling in safe and comfortable instead of venturing outside to discover what may be outside the cave. Hey, water was just discovered on the moon -- no need to go back there, no siree.

The budget is out now, but the story is a little more complicated than the rumors painted it to be:

The Obama administration instead will fund research into technology that would be used for a manned mission to Mars. An estimated $6 billion will be dispersed to the private sector to develop "space taxis" to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) and back.

So we're not returning to the moon, but we will spend more to research a manned mission to Mars. A case can certainly be made for that -- why go where we've already been when we can concentrate on going someplace we haven't been? I suspect getting to Mars without a moon base might be difficult, and there is danger in sort of bowing out of the space race when certain other countries aren't. But it's hard to argue that the adminsitration is turning its back on space. And I also can't argue with trying to turn over some functions to the private sector, especially the routine task of taxiing back and forth to the space shuttle.

So, a mixed bag, with lots of details still to emerge. Wait-and-see time.

UPDATE: The initial verdict from other exploration enthusiasts is in, and seems to be highly favorable:

They're explicitly stepping away from a roadmap, and onto the technology base that most of us long term experienced enthusiasts have been pushing for.

If I had to summarize my first impressions, especially of Bolden's statement -

“We were doing Flags and Footprints. The President and I don't want to do that. We want to colonize space for real. We're going to do the foundations for that now.”

[. . .


Mon, 02/01/2010 - 11:39am

I'm with you on this one, Leo. I'm fascinated by Prince Henry the Navigator. In a lot of ways, I think what he got started in the early 15th century helped change the world in big ways.

The Portuguese explore the east coast of Africa, eventually finding a sea route to India and beyond. The Spanish, in competition, find the Americas. After that, Europe generally makes its way from a sort of backwater of civilization to dominating the world.

I'm not saying that Prince Henry was responsible for all of that or even that it was inevitable without him. But, I think it does show that exploration potentially has huge long term effects that far outweigh the short term results.

Bob G.
Mon, 02/01/2010 - 12:36pm

You have to watch these politicos...they have this nasty tendency to speak from BOTH sides of their mouths...

The DoD was told they are cutting back production of BOTH the F-22 Raptor as well as the F-35 Lightning II...
But now we just hear that DEFENSE SPENDING is exempt from budget cuts...!?!

Now, someone "splain" to me how that supposed to work again?

Watch BOTH of their hands, people.

Mon, 02/01/2010 - 12:53pm

I'm all for space exploration, although I'm not sure that the presence of water at the Moon's poles makes a return trip all that interesting. If we use the Moon as a way station for a Mars trip, that means establishing some sort of permanent base on the Moon, which would require regular deliveries of fuel and food (but perhaps not water!) to keep it operational. Sounds expensive.
Last year, Scientific American explored the technical challenges of going to Mars, a far more interesting destination, in my opinion.
With current technology, there is no practical way to shield astronauts from deadly radiation and subatomic particles for the 18-month-minimum mission. There's also the problem of people going insane cooped up that long in a necessarily small craft.
I'll be surprised to see a manned Mars mission in my lifetime. But it sure would be neat. Judging from the dry river beds, there may be life, or fossils of former life, just a few inches below the surface. Robots just aren't sophisticated enough to say for sure. We'll need, at a minimum, a craft to dig up some Martian soil and bring it back to Earth. The philosophical implications alone are mind-boggling.