[FoRK] The Bush Space Initiative: Fiscal Nightmare or... Fiscal Nightmare? (Space Daily)

Jim Whitehead ejw at cse.ucsc.edu
Fri Mar 19 12:12:38 PST 2004


Not sure I totally get the point here.

The new space initiative is being funded primarily with existing NASA allocations. This is politically realistic, as there is no political support for dramatically increased funding levels. I don't see much controversy, or room for dismay here.

Since NASA feels they need to finish the ISS to maintain relationships with other countries (probably a good long term strategy), a lot of resources will continue to go into the ISS until it's complete. But, (and this is important), current policy is that once ISS is complete, the Shuttle will be phased out, and once ISS research has finished, so will US support of the ISS. NASA now has an exit strategy for two very costly programs. This is a very good thing, and not at all cause for dismay.

There are strong technical reasons for using Apollo-style command modules and reentry, since they mean you don't have to haul up heavy wings and engines into orbit that you then don't make any use of while in orbit. It's much more efficient to keep your rentry weight overhead to a minimum. I'm not sure I buy the "lack of experience" argument for the development of heat shields, since we have very strong computer simulation tools these days, the problem is well understood, and there will undoubtedly be unmanned tests of rentry prior to actual use.

The rest of the article seems to be a tempest in a teacup -- sure, designing a complex artifact like a spaceship involves lots of interesting design choices and tradeoffs, some of which rational people might disagree with. This is normal, not cause for gloom over the entire mission.

IMO, the US has an open window of perhaps as long as 50 years (and maybe only 25) in which we are the sole nation that could place people on Mars. This will be a phenomenal achievement, one that people will still know about and appreciate thousands of years hence. I see that being so much more lasting of a contribution than much of what we're doing today. 

As well, the first nation to establish a permanent colony on Mars has the ability to significantly affect the social and political future of Mars. Spreading democratic ideals and institutions to an entire planet seems well worth a percent or two of GDP, let alone the small amounts currently allocated to NASA.

- Jim


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