WHEN NASA UNVEILED ITS $104-billion plan on Monday to send astronauts to the moon by 2020, Administrator Michael Griffin said, “The president put out a very bold vision for space exploration, the best mission statement NASA has had in 40 years, to be honest.”
Griffin was probably referring to a speech President Bush gave in January 2004 in which he called on NASA to send humans back to the moon and eventually to Mars. It was a pre-campaign speech by a president facing a grueling reelection fight, full of hope and vision -- generally the stuff that makes people feel good about the incumbent.
But Bush’s vision was grounded in politics, not science. And, on Monday, Griffin didn’t do much to provide the scientific justification for the president’s plans.
There is no pressing reason to send humans to the moon. There is nothing they can do up there that can’t be done as well or better by robots -- and for a lot less money. Robots don’t breathe, eat or drink, they can stay on the moon or Mars for months and possibly years, and if they’re lost in space, it’s not a national tragedy.
On the plus side, Griffin’s moon exploration plan calls for the long-overdue mothballing of the space shuttle in 2010. The project also would rely largely on hardware already in use, making it cheaper than it would be to start from scratch. Griffin also promised that NASA would fund the project on a pay-as-you-go basis, working within the agency’s annual $16-billion budget and not exceeding the project’s target of $104 billion.
Still, there’s good reason to be skeptical. When President Reagan signed off on the International Space Station in 1984, NASA said it would complete construction by 1992 for a total cost of only $8 billion. Fast-forward to 2005, and the space station is stuck unfinished in low-Earth orbit at a cost of $100 billion to the U.S. and its international partners. Congress had to approve numerous budget increases throughout the 1990s just to keep the project alive.
This time around, though, Congress has more pressing obligations, including the occupation of Iraq, which has so far cost the U.S. about $200 billion, and the rebuilding of New Orleans, which is expected to cost at least that much. With Hurricane Rita expected to hit Texas on Saturday, the government could be saddled with billions more in disaster relief costs.
Given these more urgent concerns, cost overruns on a NASA project of dubious scientific value should not be tolerated. If that means delays, so be it. The moon is creeping away from Earth at a rate of only 3.8 centimeters per year; it’ll still be around if we can’t get there by 2020.