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U.S. Space Policy = Waste As Much Money As Possible

11/06/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Both Barack Obama and John McCain have spoken on space policy, and both are wrong. McCain is clearly more interested (he was a pilot and Republicans tend to like big objects and big programs). Since his views are more extensive there are more problems with them. These illustrate how wildly absurd our priorities are.

Space science has contributed much to our nation, affecting and improving our daily lives (weather forecasting, GPS, and on and on). It has vastly improved our knowledge of our world, the planet we live on (knowledge so vital to protecting it and ourselves), our Solar System, our (almost impossible) universe. Yet both candidates barely mention this. It seems, certainly for space, if it is useful it is of no interest.

Both candidates, but especially McCain, strongly emphasize human space flight. This has the advantage of being useless and wasting huge amounts of money, which is NASA's primary mission.

The interest of both candidates, but especially John McCain, is human space flight. They are both in favor of the useless Moon-Mars publicity stunt (and John McCain comes to admitting that is what it is) which will almost certainly fail wasting probably several hundred billion dollars which is why it is so attractive. (Actually that doesn't seem like a lot of money; consider the Iraq war or the financial bailout).

Humans have flown in space for about half a century. What have we accomplished? What have we learned, besides getting information needed to waste even more money? Clearly just about nothing. And what little that humans have done could have been accomplished by robots, if we had put enough effort into that, at far less cost, thus helping to develop technology that could be used in so many other ways, including creating new industries and jobs. All that effort, all that money, put into human space flight was just wasted.

Can anyone show anything that was accomplished that could not have been done more cheaply by robots? And they want to spend hundreds of billions of dollars more!

Will we actually succeed (in going to Mars, not in wasting hundreds of billions of dollars)? Consider the Space Shuttle, an extremely well-tested system, with which NASA has great experience. Just about every launch runs into problems, delays (even for months), overruns. A human trip to Mars would be vastly, immensely, more complicated. Nor could it be delayed much since the planets have to be properly aligned. And this is only going there. Imagine the trip back, especially with no support staff to fix the almost inevitable problems. A human trip to Mars is essentially pure fantasy, accomplishing nothing but the waste of hundreds of billions of dollars and the holding back of our technology and economy.

One purported purpose is to look for life. The search for extraterrestrial life is based on wishful thinking, not analysis. That, which is almost never done, shows life elsewhere, especially intelligent life, is at best extremely rare if it exists at all [R. Mirman, Our Almost Impossible Universe: Why the laws of nature make the existence of humans extraordinarily unlikely (2006)].

If we send humans to Mars will they find life? Of course. As pointed out by Robert Park they are certain to contaminate the planet (humans, unlike instruments, cannot be sterilized). Although the chance of indigenous life is extremely unlikely it is not zero. But if we send humans it will never be possible to tell. The US will then go down in history as having committed the greatest scientific crime of all time. It will be a fitting finale to the George Bush administration.

We cannot have a reasonable space program until we accept that human space flight is useless and harmful.

John McCain shows signs of recognizing this. His web site says "Although the general view in the research community is that human exploration is not an efficient way to increase scientific discoveries given the expense and logistical limitations, the role of manned space flight goes well beyond the issue of scientific discovery and is reflection of national power and pride." In other words we should waste hundreds of billion of dollars and hold back our economy and technology so we can brag. That summarizes John McCain. Think about that carefully.

Obama goes along with the general view, largely it seems because it is politically necessary, but does not emphasize it. He is more likely to eventually adopt a more rational policy.

Are we really trying to go to Mars or are we just spending money (that the space industry finds very attractive). Consider the article "Rising costs could delay NASA's next mission to Mars and future launches", Andrew Lawler, SCIENCE, 26 September, 2008, p. 1754). Because of cost overruns (several hundred million dollars, not several hundred billion), Mars missions have to be postponed or canceled. These could provide useful understanding rather than wasting money (a reason NASA is not too concerned about them) and are necessary for a human trip to Mars. Perhaps we are just spending money for a human trip for no other purpose than spending money.

Our priorities are badly warped. We are willing to spend tens or hundreds of billions of dollars (certainly John McCain is) to be able to brag.

It has been suggested that the proteins in the different cells of the body be tabulated ["Proteomics ponders prime time", Robert F. Service, SCIENCE, 26 September 2008, pp. 1758-1761]. This is extremely difficult, but even starting it will provide information that could help advance human health. Yet there are problems because it is so expensive. How much? Perhaps around a billion dollars. Yet we are willing to waste tens to hundreds of billions on useless human space flight. Maybe we should put this to a vote. How many people would prefer to spend money to improve health, and how many would prefer to just waste it so that we can brag? John McCain clearly belongs to the wasting class. Obama is in it, but weakly, and likely can be pushed to use the money for, say, improving health.

One argument for wasting many billions of dollars is that other nations will get ahead of us. As the most powerful nation on earth (at least we were before Bush became president) it is essential that we waste more money than other nations. How would it look if we allowed other countries to waste more money than we do?

It is also stated that this publicity stunt will result in more students going into science. Does anyone really take seriously the argument that a few weeks of publicity will cause many students to change their careers? But suppose that instead of wasting hundreds of billions of dollars we put the money into education?

A more important argument is that many jobs depend on human space flight. Those who hold the jobs might consider how dangerous this is. There has already been two space shuttle disasters. One more would not only end the shuttle and human space flight but hurt the entire space program. How likely is that? It has been estimated the chances are greater than one in a hundred, but if the shuttle program is extended for several years then it becomes greater than one in ten.

If that happens then not only are these thousands out of work, but since they live in areas with a lot of unemployed like them, their homes will go down greatly in value. Is that what they want, losing not only their jobs and careers but much of their wealth? That if what they are pushing for.

What else can they do? Certainly develop further robotic spacecraft. A loss will not be a disaster, and the knowledge gained can be used elsewhere, creating new industries and jobs. It will be possible to keep the very useful Hubble going much longer. A robotic service mission was ruled out because there was not enough time. But with more time it may be possible and should certainly be considered.

And they can be put to work, with secure jobs, developing alternate sources of energy, which would lead to many jobs. How about decreasing pollution, global warming, developing better forms of transportation, powering our homes, medical devices for health and saving lives, and so on? But these are useful so we can't brag about them or get lots of publicity. Thus there isn't much interest.

Looking at human space flight we can see how wildly warped our, and especially John McCain's, priorities are.