Friday, September 22, 2006

Too much emphasis on manned space flight (?)

The current WH-ordered emphasis on manned space flight is not capturing the (liberal) public imagination, at least in terms of DailyKos readers. As of 11am EST (with 203 votes) 54% think more emphasis should be placed on unmanned missions (you know, the ones that actually produce useful results and also cost vastly less than manned mission).

This is from DarkSyde's science friday article, which is is pretty damn clear as to the cost/benefit outcomes of manned missions (the shuttle, the international space station) and unmanned missions (e.g. Hubble, Cassini).

What is a little disturbing (at least to me) is that despite his rather clear discussion 16% believe the current balance (i.e. running NASA's science capability into the ground) is acceptable, and 26% believe more manned space flight should be done.

Just for fun lets basically recap the facts, the numbers are rough but are qualitatively correct:

International Space Station:

  • Reason for construction: Congress, after deciding GHWB's Mar's plan was too expensive.
  • Total cost: $100 billion dollars?
  • Unique science accomplished: None. Microgravity experiments can be done on planes.
  • Unique advances/development of space technology: ?

Space-based (unmanned) observatories: example, the Hubble Space Telescope
  • Reason for construction: Scientific need to determine the expansion rate of the Universe (the Hubble Constant) by detecting Cepheid variables in galaxies further away than possible with any ground-based observatory.
  • Total cost: At about $5 billion HST is one of the most expensive science missions of the last 2 decades.
  • Unique science accomplished: Determined Hubble constant, distant SNe show Universe is expanding, presence of Dark Energy, deepest observations of the Universe to date, etc etc.
  • Unique advances/development of space technology: Multiple successful upgrades performed in space by astronauts.
The problem, and the cause of wasted tax-payer money, is not manned space flight itself, it is any form of space mission driven by narrow political or financial reasons. NASA does (did?) science well because missions were chosen based on apolitical scientific need as prioritized by the entire scientific community.

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