It's the time of year when the National Aeronautics and Space Administration releases "artist's conceptions" of hotels on the moon or grand expeditions to Mars. Yes, it's NASA budget proposal time, the annual moment when the agency provides the media with neat graphics of stuff unlikely ever to exist— here the Washington Post runs an artist's conception of an imaginary moon SUV. After handing out the pretty pictures, NASA lobbyists troop up to Capitol Hill to request billions for the actual stuff.
For at least a decade, it's been clear that the space shuttle program is a clunker. Nonetheless, NASA's funding remains heavy on the shuttle and the space station, while usually slighting science. This year's proposed budget for fiscal 2007 takes the cosmic cake. NASA wants to keep pouring billions of dollars into the shuttle, the space station, and the White House's moon-base project—which benefit no one other than NASA bureaucrats and aerospace contractors—while eliminating many projects to study climate conditions on Earth. That is to say, NASA wants to sustain funds for its white elephants while cutting the programs that could return information of value to taxpayers.
At this point, the shuttle exists almost solely to service the space station, while the station exists almost solely to give the space shuttle a destination to fly to. Two space shuttles have exploded on national television. Yet the program drags on owing to the desire of aerospace contractors, and members of Congress who represent shuttle districts, for launches that cost nearly $1 billion each. The shuttle has operated just once since the Columbia loss in February 2003. It may or may not fly in 2006. Most experiments conducted aboard the space station could be done at far less expense by automated probes. "Life science" research on the astronauts themselves is the sole mission that requires people to be present, but even this boils down to billions of dollars spent for astronauts to take each other's blood pressure. As Gar Smith has written, the space station represents "one of the biggest boondoggles since the Pyramids." Despite the dubious rationales for the shuttle and space station, the proposed fiscal 2007 budget fully funds a new round of waste on these programs—about $8 billion, compared with about $5 billion for space probes, Earth study, and study of the distant universe.
As for the moon base, for three decades NASA has sent nothing to the moon, not even a robot probe. That's because the Apollo missions found little to suggest that the moon is interesting, except to geology postdocs. Yet the White House has called for construction of a "manned" moon base—there seems no alternative to that phrasing—and the proposed budget includes about $4 billion in initial moon-base funding. The long-term price may be astronomical, as it were. The program cost (construction, launch, servicing, and ground support) for a stripped-down moon base might hit $200 billion, about the cost of a year of the Iraq war.
Yet it's unclear what astronauts would do at a moon base, other than survive until their return voyage. A moon base would not be useful for a future Mars expedition—quite the contrary, it would be an obstacle. Any Mars-bound mission would almost certainly depart directly from Earth orbit to the Red Planet; stopping at the moon would be counterproductive in terms of propulsion physics and so dramatically raises the price of Mars flight. (The details are here.) NASA is thinking about a moon base solely because Congress appears gullible enough to fund one. Within the halls of the space agency, the manned-space empire is believed to be in jeopardy. NASA wants to sustain the astronaut corps, even at the cost of pretending a moon base makes sense when every NASA official knows it will be a hole to pour money down.
Meanwhile, the proposed budget clobbers programs of tangible value. Hydros, a mission to study soil moisture, would be canceled. At a time when increases in the global agricultural yield are just barely staying ahead of population growth, improving knowledge of our planet's soil moisture seems, oh, 10,000 times more important than paying for astronauts to take samples of the lunar regolith.
The NASA budget also delays by years the Global Precipitation Measurement Mission, which would allow precise tracking of rainfall, especially in places where there are now only estimates, such as over the oceans. The most urgent question regarding global warming is whether it will change global rainfall patterns, as this could impact the agricultural production on which the world's food supply is so perilously balanced. Yet NASA wants to postpone a study of the Earth's water cycle in order to free up more money to ferry bottled water to the space station. (Astronauts aboard the station consume nearly half a million dollars' worth of bottled water daily.)
Other canceled missions would study water vapor in the atmosphere, monitor deforestation, examine ocean currents, and figure out how much solar heat is reflected back into space by tiny aerosol particles in the atmosphere. These decisions come on the heels of NASA's deep-sixing of a project to place an Earth climate observatory at one of the Lagrange points, the positions in space where the gravity of the Earth and moon are equalized. This recent National Academy of Sciences report excoriates NASA for paying too little attention to Earth observation and for doing relatively little to study the sun, on which, after all, Earth life depends.
You might assume that NASA is canceling Earth study missions because the Bush administration does not want environmental data. Yet the projects in question would not yield substantive results until after President George W. Bush leaves office. What's really going on is that NASA holds the taxpayers in contempt. Space agency top management has long clung to an attitude of "We are experts, no one dares question us." And NASA entertains a silly Sci Fi Channel fantasy that its core task lies in deep space, because humanity is already on the verge of discovering the origin of the universe. Earth is low-prestige—too local. As Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y., noted in 2005, NASA "describes Earth science research as being significant to the extent that it informs our knowledge of, and our capability, to explore other planets. This is precisely backwards. The planet that has to matter most to us is the one we live on."
Consider that NASA continues to lavish billions on the planned Webb Space Telescope, successor to the existing Hubble Space Telescope, at the same time that the agency has indefinitely postponed Terrestrial Planet Finder. The Webb telescope will look billions of light-years toward the edge of the observable universe, hunting for clues to such questions as how matter was distributed in the epoch immediately following the big bang. It is sure to produce spectacular images of very distant galaxies, plus knowledge of esoteric value—but is highly unlikely to discover anything that will matter to your life or mine. Terrestrial Planet Finder, by contrast, is designed to scan for worlds similar to Earth relatively "nearby," in our region of the Milky Way galaxy. To know whether there is another Earth-like world reasonably close to ours would have immediate relevance. Yet NASA has earmarked about $4.5 billion for the Webb telescope, a gravy train for aerospace contractors plagued by cost overruns, while starving Terrestrial Planet Finder. That the telescope mega-project is named for James Webb, a former NASA bureaucrat, rather than after some great explorer or thinker, says volumes about the agency.
What would constitute rational budget priorities for NASA? The agency's first emphasis should be research about Earth and the sun. That's the sole area in which NASA spending is odds-on to produce immediate returns for taxpayers. Second, NASA should fund more automated probes and satellites to study this solar system and close-by star systems—the parts of space that might have some effect on us. Almost all NASA findings since the moon program have come from automated probes such as Cassini, which a few weeks ago discovered what appears to be a water vent on a moon of Saturn. Most probe projects cost less than a single launch of the space shuttle. Third, the agency should cancel the shuttle program and use the funds to research new propulsion systems that might fundamentally reduce the price of access to space. A fundamental propulsion breakthrough must come before grand visions like a Mars mission. Currently NASA is working on a new launcher to replace the shuttle, but that system will be cobbled together from existing engines and hardware and won't notably differ from rockets of the 1960s.
Fourth, NASA needs a serious program for searching nearby space for asteroids and comets that might strike Earth and figuring out how to deflect any big rock headed this way. Asteroids and comets large enough to cause devastation may strike Earth distressingly often; for instance, it is believed thousands of people were killed by a smallish space rock that hit China in 1490. (Here is more on the chance of a calamitous comet or asteroid impact.) Even if asteroid and comet strikes only happen in intervals of thousands of years, that doesn't change the chances that a space rock is headed our way right now, in the same sense that a coin coming up heads 10 times in a row has no bearing on what the next flip will produce. If NASA protected Earth against a strike from space, that might be, let's say, the most significant accomplishment in human history. Yet NASA has only a minor program to search for "near-Earth objects" and no program to figure out what to do about them. Preventing comet strikes would give taxpayers a return on their money, and we can't have that! The new budget request suggests that no one in the agency's hidebound, turf-obsessed upper management wants to think about what NASA can do to actually benefit the public.