TCS Daily

'No Bucks, No Buck Rogers'

By Walter Cunningham - February 3, 2004 12:00 AM

It was wonderful to see President Bush identify himself with NASA and announce a new charter and grand vision for the space agency. For any grand plan of exploration to succeed it must be championed at the highest levels. In our society that means the President. The president's plan can provide the focus that NASA has been missing for a long time. Highlights of the plan: phase out the shuttle and "withdraw" from the ISS by 2010, manned landings on the Moon by 2020, and a manned mission to Mars "sometime after 2030." It is a plan that does not sound like it had a lot of input from engineers and operational types.

I want to see an American standing on Mars or one of its moons in the worst way, but it won't happen in my lifetime. If it takes a return to the Moon to eventually get a mission to Mars funded, I enthusiastically support it. My two favorite rationales to justify such a glorious human adventure as exploring our solar system are:

1) A commitment to return to the Moon and go on to Mars will do what exploration has always done -- it feeds the human spirit. A passion for discovery and a sense of adventure has always driven America forward. These deeply rooted qualities spur our determination to explore new scientific frontiers and spark our can-do spirit of technological innovation. The continued leadership of our world depends on our enduring commitment to science, to technology, to research, and to learning.

2) Space exploration is a research and development "engine of change" that benefits sectors far removed from the space industry. The engineering capability developed in space initia­tives is employed in a variety of activities across the economy. Without the research and development necessary to maintain an edge, America's position as the world's leading economic power will be in jeopardy.

Whether it is advances in fire fighting technology, sewage recy­cling, communications, medical technology and instrumentation, manufacturing, agriculture, drought, and hurricane forecasting or educational technologies, what NASA initially developed for astronauts in space has found its way into our daily commerce. Space technology works to improve our quality of life on Earth in ways that are transparent to or unknown to most people.

Any great exploration is a risky undertaking, involving political, technical, human, and economic risks. The political risk rests squarely on the shoulders of President Bush, because there is no huge constituency clamoring to send men to Mars. Au contraire! According to a recent poll, a majority of Americans would rather spend money on domestic needs.

I believe we have the technical risk well in hand. We first went to the Moon 35 years ago and our current technology is such that only the cost and the will to go keep us from having a Mars program today. Yes, it may be faster, safer and better executed if it is pushed farther into the future, but a manned mission to Mars is much more feasible today than was a manned landing on the Moon when President Kennedy announced it 40 years ago. Ten years later, "man on the Moon" was history. President Kennedy had enunciated a simple vision, and then the engineers and scientists determined how to do it right.

The human risk is great at a time when risky activities are just not acceptable to a large segment of our population. For many, manned spaceflight will always be extravagant and illogical. Historically, there have always been those who opposed fording the next river, crossing the next sea, or traveling beyond the next ocean. Can anyone remember those who tried to fly the Atlantic before Charles Lindbergh? We celebrate successes after the fact, and conveniently forget the failures which are important to the effort.

There is a difference between a risky activity, such as the Apollo missions or a Shuttle launch, and reckless activity, as when we continued to launch Shuttle missions after we knew the external tank was regularly shedding insulation. In a risky activity, we can quantify the payoff or benefits, com­pare it to other known and estimated risks, and determine the cost/benefit ratio. In reckless activity, risks are unmeasured and unknown, and payoffs are ill defined and ephemeral.

Space is inherently dangerous -- it is the most hostile envi­ronment ever explored by man. But there are benefits to be derived from our exploration and utilization of space. It is NASA's job to reduce the risks until the benefits to be derived are judged to exceed the risks, and then get on with the program. Astronauts will accept reasonable risks associated with meaningful objectives in which they truly believe.

The new initiative avoided any mention of the economic risk (cost) in establishing a Moon base and going on to Mars. Money is the real obstacle! Without clarification of and commitment to the cost, the new vision for NASA is little more than an unfunded mandate. We cannot go into space on the cheap. The five-year funding of one billion dollars in new money and $11 billion squeezed out of NASA's current projected funding is woefully inadequate.

It is not too difficult to get an idea of the cost of the lunar base for this grand adventure. Without that cost estimate, the administration (and Congress) cannot really embrace the investment, and the commitment of the current or future administrations may vanish when the cost is ultimately faced. The Apollo Program cost $25 billion, equivalent to about $125 billion in today's dollars. NASA may be more experienced today and armed with better technology, but they are also more bureaucratic with less effective management. We can be optimistic and assume it could be done for the same amount today. Building a station on the Moon will be at least as difficult as, and no less costly than constructing the ISS. The ISS, when completed, will have cost somewhere between $50 and $100 billion dollars, depending on how we count and whom you believe. It's possible we could establish a permanent base on the Moon for $150-200 billion (about twice what Americans spend on alcohol each year), but it could also cost much more. NASA will have no realistic chance to accomplish the President's program until it is tied to a funding plan. I believe we can not only afford it, but it will be well worth the investment. Now is the time to make such a commitment.

The first casualty of the return to the Moon initiative is the 2005 servicing mission for the Hubble Space Telescope. The Hubble may not "contribute to completion of the ISS," as NASA says, but its contribution to scientific knowledge may well exceed that of the ISS.

Abandonment of the Hubble is as much a consequence of NASA's reaction to the Columbia disaster as it is the new initiative. Regarding his decision to abandon in place the Hubble Space Telescope NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe had this to say. "It was one based on risk, exclusively." He describes a Shuttle flight to Hubble as "a one-of-a-kind, unique, a very different and riskier mission... that's not a risk that I could deem to be an acceptable one." He is talking about the world's greatest flying machine after spending two years making the shuttle system even safer! It only gives credence to those critics who say the ISS exists as destination for the Shuttle, and the Shuttle exists to service the ISS.

Can an organization that elects to not accept the risk of flying a truly great spacecraft in familiar earth orbits step up to the inherent risks of landing a man on the Moon, let alone sending a man to Mars? Of greater concern, is NASA merely a reflection of society's growing desire for a risk-free existence? That attitude would never have gotten us to the Moon in the first place and made us the world leader in manned spaceflight. NASA was founded to explore the unknown, to evaluate the risk vs. gain and to take calculated risks to move our society forward.

It will be another great loss if the Space Shuttle is "retired" by 2010, long before we have an adequate replacement. The Shuttle is the only vehicle capable of carrying, to and from the ISS, the biological and engineering equipment to perform research essential to future space goals.

Historically, NASA has enjoyed a kind of symbiotic relationship with Congress whereby NASA over-promises on results and low-balls the cost of new programs, which allows Congress to fund the program. When the under-funded program is, inevitably, late and over budget, NASA is mercilessly criticized by Congress and the public. It would be nice, just once, to see Congress endorse a program based on realistic expectations and honest cost estimates from NASA.

Gus Grissom, famous for the remark, "No bucks, no Buck Rogers," would understand the picture perfectly. Without a commitment for adequate funding, NASA's new vision of man's destiny is just another unfunded mandate.

The author flew on Apollo 7, the first manned Apollo mission and is author of The All-American Boys.


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