Space Race 2025: Does Manned Exploration Return its Costs?

Fact: According to a Houston Chronicle editorial urging increased funding for NASA, “The NASA budget approved by Congress is just over $17.3 billion. [A]dded funding is needed to shorten a dangerous 5-year gap between the decommissioning of the three aging space shuttles in 2010 and the first scheduled flight of Orion [the next generation U.S. manned spacecraft] in 2015.”

Analysis: NASA and its long-running race with the Russians is on my mind a bit, for two nifty reasons: first, NASA’s Dr. Lisa Porter is joining the intelligence community to lead advanced R&D (see my post last week), and I serendipitously found a stunning collection of vintage Soviet and European science-fiction images, oh-so-retro, and intend to redecorate my walls with them (or would if my wife would let me).

soviet-sci-fi-art-1953.jpgDoes NASA need more money? The answer may depend on whether there actually is the potential of a new space race… and if so, toward what goal, and does the U.S. need to win that race.  This week’s shot across our bow seems to indicate some Russians are eager for a race to Mars. Lev Zelyony, director of Russia’s prestigious Space Research Institute, was quoted as saying “We lost the race to the moon,” but that reaching the red planet by 2025 would bring “scientific and political prestige” and is “technically and economically achievable.”  He added that they have “a head start” in the race, such as it is.

During the “dangerous 5-year gap” the Chronicle warns of, when our Space Shuttle is no longer flying, the Administration’s current strategic plan for NASA actually relies on Russia’s cooperation to provide essentially a ferry service, carrying our astronauts to the International Space Station in their Soyuz. I have a few concerns with that, going beyond the chauvinistic attitude in the editorial, and focusing more on the reliability and safety of the Soyuz program itself.

Then there’s the issue of China’s nascent and expanding space program…. with the geopolitical implications of an unbalanced trio of space-racers, jockeying for the “political prestige” noted by Zelyony during an era when space-based military capabilities will only increase.

It would be naive to expect decisions on NASA funding to be made only on the question of whether space exploration provides a return on the investment (Tang as a commercial product, the Gemini and Apollo programs as economic engines for the American engineering juggernaut during the 1960s).  The New York Times this week has run a long and very interesting forum with some of the deep-space deep thinkers on the topic, “Is Space Exploration Worth the Cost?”  Overall they’re bullish, pointing to great returns and putting the costs in perspective, with one participant pointing out that while NASA spends some $7 billion per year on manned flight currently, Americans as a whole spent more than $154 billion on alcohol last year.  It’s good reading – and don’t miss the numerous comments posted since, some quirky and some trenchant.

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2 Responses

  1. Good read, thanks.

    Generally, I think that the “commercial return” issue sells short the bigger picture – humans explore. It’s how we expand our minds, excited our souls, and continue to learn. Quite simply, space is next.

    I’ll gladly cut out my booze intake for a while if that’ll help!🙂

  2. […] real battle is going to be over the politics and science of relying on Russian vehicles during the 2010-2015 gap, devoid of any U.S. operational space vehicles whatsoever (bye-bye Shuttle).  This is just heating […]

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