Forty years! For 40 years, everybody at NASA has known that the only logical next step is a manned Mars mission, and every overture has been entertained only briefly by presidents and the Congress. They have so many more luscious and appealing projects that could make better use of the close to $10 billion annually the Mars program would require. There is another overture even at this moment, and it does not stand a chance in the teeth of Depression II.
“Why not send robots?” is a common refrain. And once more it is the late Wernher von Braun who comes up with the rejoinder. One of the things he most enjoyed saying was that there is no computerized explorer in the world with more than a tiny fraction of the power of a chemical analog computer known as the human brain, which is easily reproduced by unskilled labor.
What NASA needs now is the power of the Word. On Darwin’s tongue, the Word created a revolutionary and now well-nigh universal conception of the nature of human beings, or, rather, human beasts. On Freud’s tongue, the Word means that at this very moment there are probably several million orgasms occurring that would not have occurred had Freud never lived. Even the fact that he is proved to be a quack has not diminished the power of his Word.
This seems a flawed analogy in many ways: for one thing, Darwinism became accepted because of scientific evidence, something that has not happened with Freudianism or the arguments for manned space travel (and the fact that Freud proved to be a quack has diminished the power of his Word). For another, I can buy a copy of The Origin Of Species or Civilization and Its Discontents for fifteen bucks, but it will probably cost at least $200 billion to go to Mars.
Now, Wolfe is an unusually simple-minded (if at times exceptionally eloquent) exponent of any theory he adopts — his explanation of why he voted for Bush makes Erick Erickson sound like de Tocqueville. But I think a lot of support for manned space travel stems from the same place as Wolfe’s does, from the notion that having humans explore the universe is one of those things you can’t put a price on. Like freedom.
Of course, the problem is that here on earth you can put a price on just about anything. And when that thing is something like a mission to Mars or a World Freedom agenda, that price is likely to be more than anyone wants to spend. The obvious solution: cut corners. Only send 120,000 troops to Iraq when the Army War College recommends half a million. We can expect the same approach to manned space travel, as a friend who follows this stuff in detail explained to me.
After Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated during re-entry in 2003, the Bush Administration created a “Vision for Space Exploration”. One of the parts of the plan is that astronauts and cargo are launched separately. The proposed astronaut launch component is the Ares I, which is a solid-rocket first stage and a liquid-fueled second stage.
As far as I can tell, the sole reason for a solid first stage is cost. Solid rockets are cheaper but can’t be turned off once they’re started, which is why they weren’t used for Apollo and prior missions. They were used to save money with the Shuttle, and the first Shuttle catastrophe was caused by failure of one of the solid rocket boosters. The Ares I first stage design is based on the Shuttle boosters.
This week, the Air Force released a report saying that there’s 100% chance that a solid-rocket booster failure in the first minute of flight would kill the Ares crew. That report is based on a failure of solid rocket boosters in an unmanned Titan IV rocket in 1998. This is on top of an earlier report that the USAF wouldn’t even certify the Ares I for range safety. Here’s the Orlando Sentiel’s summary:
Air Force officials previously warned NASA they fear that violent shaking on liftoff of the Ares I-X, a rocket that will test the Ares I first stage, would disable the steering and self-destruct mechanisms, meaning it could not be destroyed if it veered off course.
If that problem is not fixed, the Air Force has said, the rocket cannot fly from Kennedy Space Center for fear it could endanger populated areas along the Space Coast.
Apollo was a “succeed at any cost” mission. The new missions are “succeed on the cheap” and it shows.