good riddance, space cowboys

February 1, 2010

So, big budget cut for the Constellation program (but not for NASA overall) proposed today by Obama and his economic adviser folks.  The Constellation program, for those of you who perhaps didn’t work at a planetarium for five years and study astronomy for four, was the big fancy new space cowboy plan announced by Bush II, the plans outlining the design and construction of new rockets and new spacecraft with the goal of returning Americans to the moon by 2020.

A better space cowboy. He's a big damn hero.

Good riddance, I say.  I hope this cut makes it through congress, though I’m not convinced that it will.  Human exploration in space is outdated now; robotic probes are far more sophisticated with every launch, and far more economical than human exploration could ever hope to be.  Just look at Spirit and Opportunity: the original budget for that project was $820 million, including their design, construction, launch, and operation for the anticipated 90-day lifespan of the rovers.  Since they’re still working after six years, several mission extension budgets have totaled up another $100-200 million or so, making the total cost for these two rovers add up to roughly $1 billion.

The Constellation program, by contrast, has already spent $8 billion, and we’re really not much closer to getting back to the moon.  Spirit and Opportunity have revolutionized our understanding of Mars’ past (and present), for an eighth of the cost, and have explored for an unprecedented six years.  How long could humans stay?  Six days?  Six weeks at most?  There’s no way Constellation could even aspire to have the science value of the Spirit and Opportunity mission.  We should scrap it entirely, and for all I care, scrap the ISS as well.  It’s a train wreck.  A space train wreck.

But what about the jobs lost, I hear the cries from congress?  Well, what about them?  It sucks, and I should probably stick up for my fellow scientists and engineers and all, but really, the number of jobs lost by a tremendous cut like this one is probably paltry compared to the jobs lost by a comparable cut in another sector.  Plus, as much as the job market sucks in science right now, it’s probably a field of daisies compared to the blue collar market.  At least science jobs haven’t been entirely outsourced yet.  The folks employed by this program aren’t generally going to be the folks you hear about struggling to feed their families and unable to afford healthcare.  Besides, the proposed budget includes big increases in non-defense R&D spending, so it’s good overall for the science sector.

Anyhow, good riddance to the space cowboy budget.


One comment

  1. Personally, I think human exploration of space IS still important. People can make judgments and analyze data in a way that even the most sophisticated robotic probe never can.
    I do agree, however, that the era of NASA is over. NASA does spend too much money, and the Constellation program is…questionable, to say the least. What do you think of Richard Branson and other businessmen who are venturing into space with privately funded craft?

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