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No Cheap Ticket to Outer Space

by Jonathan Coopersmith on Feb 1, 2004

Jonathan Coopersmith

For the first time since Project Apollo nearly four decades ago, NASA has a coherent policy for human space exploration. By deciding to send astronauts back to the moon and on to Mars, President Bush has followed a course many space enthusiasts have urged for decades.

Americans are excited about the idea of exploring space. The Web sites for Spirit and Opportunity, the Mars rovers, have registered more than four billion hits in less than a month. But the president’s proposed plans threaten to hurt space exploration more than help it. Like so many Bush proposals, the goals are laudable but the execution is short-sighted and probably harmful.

The Administration’s new policy has two serious flaws. It proposes space exploration on the cheap and it does not try to reduce the cost of reaching space from Earth. Over the next five years, the administration intends to provide NASA with $86 billion (less than the $87 billion the government is spending on the occupation of Iraq this year alone), only $1 billion more than previously budgeted.

Sending a heavy satellite into Earth orbit costs tens of millions of dollars, or approximately $10,000 a pound. By comparison, sending a 180-pound history professor across the Atlantic Ocean demands $3-6 a pound, depending on ticket prices. Unless the cost of reaching orbit is reduced, space will remain a frontier reachable by only a few chosen astronauts.

The Bush administration ought to commit itself to spending money now to develop new launch systems to reduce the cost of reaching orbit to $100 a pound. Just as the federal government in the 1950s spent billions of dollars developing the rockets that enabled us to enter space, so now, as some engineers are urging, NASA should develop new technologies to make space affordable. Significantly cutting the cost of reaching Earth orbit would greatly expand access to space by private enterprise and others. Such an effort would open space to human exploration and operations far more greatly and much quicker than sending a few astronauts to Mars.

While the path not chosen of reducing launch costs will limit future development, the Bush administration’s tendency to drink champagne on a beer budget has already harmed current research. The essential truth, ignored by his plan, is that space exploration cannot yet be done on the cheap. Historically, high costs and budget overruns are normal, owing to the challenging environment of space and difficulty in developing and deploying new, complex technologies.

Vanguard, America’s first satellite in 1958, cost $120 million instead of the $10 million originally planned. In recent years, the space shuttle and space station have incurred billions of dollars in unexpected costs. The Defense Department already has incurred $4 billion in overruns in its new spy satellite program, which is still years from launch. Only the Apollo landings on the moon did not overrun their budget. That was because the NASA administrator, James Webb, told his engineers to be honest in their cost estimates — which he then doubled before presenting them to President Kennedy.

Future costs of human flights to the moon and Mars will undoubtedly increase greatly beyond initial projections, forcing NASA administrators to take risky shortcuts, ask for more funding or cut elsewhere. Historically, that “elsewhere” has been robotic spacecraft. Scientists, regardless of their feelings about humans in space, justly worry that putting astronauts in orbit will occur at the expense of unmanned spacecraft. These are the spacecraft — like Voyager, Pioneer, Galileo and Cassini — that have ranged from the fierce orbit of Mercury past Pluto’s orbit and given us new perspectives on the planets, the solar system, and the universe.

Already, the Bush space policy has claimed its first victim, the Hubble Space Telescope, one of the most successful explorers ever. To pay for the president’s policy, NASA has canceled a planned $600 million mission in 2006 to upgrade this remarkable orbiting telescope. A replacement telescope will not be launched until 2012, leaving a huge gap in our coverage and knowledge of the universe. What other programs will feel the pinch next? For they surely will feel the pinch unless NASA’s budget grows to accommodate the new human missions.

America is shortchanged in two ways by the Bush policy. First, by not focusing on reducing the cost of reaching orbit, the administration has forfeited the opportunity to truly increase access to space. Second, this new policy continues the Bush administration political strategy of promoting high-profile proposals that sound good and spend little initially but delay the full costs for the future.

Who wants to oppose tax cuts, better education for children or exploring space? But the failure to fully fund public education and expanded space exploration means these programs cannot reach the lofty goals set for them. And that will be a loss for all of us.

Jonathan Coopersmith is associate professor in the Department of History at Texas A & M University.