At least one commenter didn’t take very well to my suggestion that an addlebrained moonshot would steer NASA resources away from programs which actually serve some practical good, for example as robotic exploration and Earth science. Let’s leave aside the obvious point that a moonbase would absorb more resources than NASA spends on the rest of its objectives combined. NASA scientists have already warned that the addled scheme to put men on Mars, of which the moonshot is part and parcel, sucks resources from productive missions. I guess that wasn’t obvious enough.
Let’s hear it from NASA administrator Michael Griffin:
“Viewed from the point of history several decades out,” he said in an interview, “the period where the United States retreated from the Moon and quite deliberately focused only on low Earth orbit [that is to say, Shuttle and Earth observation missions] will be seen, to me, a mistake.”[…] Mr. Griffin was appointed to head the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in 2005, a year after President Bush announced his “vision for space exploration,” which calls for returning astronauts to the Moon by 2020 and then moving on to send humans to Mars. Mr. Griffin has from the start been an enthusiastic proponent of that plan.
But it has put him in a delicate situation, as he has shifted NASA financing to the Moon initiative, while moving to complete the space station and shut down the shuttle program by 2010, and cutting back on its science activities. And in doing so, he has occasionally expressed doubts about the wisdom underlying the nation’s decision to build the shuttle and the station.
About those budget limits.
The plan to return to the Moon by 2020 has been met with some skepticism, especially among those who doubt that the space agency can take on such a daunting project within its $17 billion annual budget. Dr. Griffin said that NASA could do the job — and could reach the moon even more quickly, with more money.
You don’t need to read too deeply between the lines to interpret Dr. Griffin’s meaning here. The cost of pushing mass beyond Earth’s orbit hasn’t gone down very much since 1965, which means that moving human cargo to the moon should cost today more or less what it cost then. But we don’t plan to simply move people to the moon. We plan to move something comparable to the International Space Station to the moon, assemble it there and maintain a regular human presence. The costs associated with even the testing phase of a project of that magnitude would be, for lack of a better word, astronomical.
The money has to come from somewhere. As the article demonstrates Dr. Griffin feels increasingly uninhibited about moving NASA’s science missions from the front burner to the back burner and, as money and attention for the moon/Mars boondoggle ramp up, off the stove altogether. Given the administration’s general attitude towards science I’m sure that Griffin’s bosses are thrilled.