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By Jack Ganssle


Published 3/13/2006

Congratulations, NASA! Last week the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter successfully entered Martian orbit. This is an exciting science mission that's expected to return some 4 terabytes of data, more than from all previous missions to other planets combined.

After two years the twin rovers continue to function well, though they were designed for a short 90 day mission. Another fabulous bit of engineering that does tremendous credit to NASA.

Hubble, too, soldiers on. There's never an issue of Sky and Telescope that doesn't have some spectacular image from this amazing instrument. Last week Hubble found that Pluto's newly-discovered small moons have the same color as Charon, suggesting that they all formed from one gigantic impact. That's a pretty amazing discovery since P1 and P2 are some 5000 times dimmer than Charon, and are less than 100 miles in diameter. Not bad imaging for objects 6 billion km distant!

I grew up in the space business. My dad, a mechanical engineer at the time and still ineffably an engineer in outlook even in retirement, spent most of his career designing spacecraft, from early Lunar Module work, Saturn V studies, the three Pegasus missions launched on Saturn Is, and many, many more. My first job at age 16 was as an electronics tech doing ground support equipment for Apollo. Today I'm on NASA's Super Problem Resolution Team, a group formed after Columbia's tragic failure to help the organization with big issues.

Though created as a political response to Sputnik, for a half-century NASA has been a leading light for the United States, pursuing a noble mission of scientific inquiry even in times when political scandals make one despair for this country's future.

But I fear NASA is losing its way.

The archaic Space Shuttle has cost $145 billion ( so far, and, along with the space station, consumes $6.7b of NASA's modest $16.6b ( budget.

Today the Shuttle's only real mission is to complete the International Space Station (ISS). NASA plans some 20 launches ( to finish this platform. yet it's far from clear why we're spending $100b to orbit a system that performs practically no science.

One might argue that long-duration missions are important to learn how the human body adapts to space before a years-long manned Mars mission begins. Yet both the Russians and the US have accumulated vast amounts of information about this on Mir and Skylab.

In my opinion the current focus on manned lunar and Mars missions is a mistake that sucks too many resources from other NASA programs. Considering that Apollo cost over $100b in today's dollars for short-term sprints, it's hard to imagine a manned Mars mission running less than many hundreds of billions. or more. That money just doesn't exist. Even the most optimistic forecasts call for large federal deficits for many years to come. Considering the upcoming retirement of the baby boomers, swelling entitlements, increasing discretionary spending, where will the money come from?

Voters will be faced with stark choices. Mars or social security? The moon (again) or lower taxes? Surely politicians anxious to get elected will pander to these pocketbook issues.

The funding for Mars and the moon just won't be there for the many years needed to pull these tremendously exciting missions off. We'll spend tens of billions before cancelling the programs. Congress as ever happy with unfunded mandates is already unwilling to put money into NASA's coffers to jumpstart the missions.

Meanwhile science suffers as NASA is forced to eviscerate these highly productive and relatively (As Everett Dirksen remarked: "a billion here, a billion there, pretty soon you're talking real money.") missions.

Seems to me we have two choices: fund NASA at a level needed to really send folks outside Earth orbit. or be realistic and cancel those programs.

What do you think? (Let the flames begin!)