Monday, February 4, 2008

Weird Science

The WASHINGTON POST just disclosed that the Bush Administration is paying a New York advertising firm $160,000 to better “brand” its Constellation Project. This is the $230 billion project to send humans back to the moon and onto Mars. Many scientists and Congress are rightly skeptical of both the goal and the expense of this effort.

There are many good reasons to continue funding America’s exploration of space. We should be launching satellites to monitor the earth’s environment and to provide early detection of near earth asteroids and other possible threats to our planet.

However, it does not make much sense to send people to other planetary bodies in the next twenty to thirty years. Sending humans into long space missions is risky and expensive. A mission to Mars will take at least 500 days. The challenges of providing for sufficient air, water, and food for such a mission are daunting. Once there, the landing crew will have severely limited time to explore before having to begin their return to Earth.

Why not continue to send rovers and other robots to the moon, Mars, and other planets? Spirit and Opportunity have been roaming around Mars since January 4 and 24, 2004, respectively. That is approximately 2,958 days of exploration time on Mars. It currently costs about
$2.8 million per month, or $33.6 million a year, for continuing these valuable explorations.

The Mars rovers cost about $600 million to develop and launch. In fact, the second rover cost only half the first rover because of “economies of scale” related to having the team and facilities already up and running.
Today’s technology would allow NASA to load up additional rovers with far more sensors, cameras and batteries. Teams of people, safe on earth, could command a fleet of rovers covering Mars for decades for a fraction of Constellation’s cost to place two people on the Red Planet for a few hours. If the Bush administration wants to create a legacy in space they should expand what is already working, not spend money for PR firms to promote costly publicity stunts.

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