Waste-fraud-and-abuse Dep’t

Obama moves to kill the “back-to-the-Moon” program.

When I suggested – amid the furore about the Obama “budget freeze” – that we might see cuts in NASA, I was engaging in wish-fulfillment fantasy rather than prediction. But today comes word that they’re killing the “back-to-the-Moon” program entirely, as part of an overall NASA budget that isn’t keeping up with inflation.

I still think it’s crazy to spend more than three times the NSF budget on the space program, but most of the unmanned stuff has real scientific merit. It’s the manned program that’s a boondoggle, and that’s what’s taking the hit.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

18 thoughts on “Waste-fraud-and-abuse Dep’t”

  1. I'm 62. I have seen every single theory of anything to do with space overturned by the "next" breakthrough. Stop pouring gold down the fucking rat hole until we've got a competent grasp of how our mudball works. PS, read a doctoral thesis on payback from the "startling jumps in science and technology involved in the space program" – less than 1 per cent.

    Even more hilarious is the use the heat of volcanos to make electricity project. I lived in Hawaii in 1989 and not one single kilowatt had been powered at an expense (then) of over half of a billion dollars.

    Give me one twentieth of the NASA budget and free bidding and I will have people living on Mars in 15 years.

  2. On the bright side, patriotic Americans can now cheer their hearts out for Red Chinese efforts to colonize the planets and stars.

    After 40 years of despair, space buffs finally have something wonderful to look forward to!

  3. Much as I like space exploration in general terms, I can't mourn Nasa; It's been decades since they were doing anything real to advance manned space flight. The canceled "back to the Moon" program was NEVER going to get there. Burt Rutan was likely to beat them back to the Moon, if they didn't go out of their way to impede him.

    We're past the point where space has to be a government program. The best we can ask of government now, is to get the heck out of the way, and not sign on to any more treaties making space a gigantic commons.

  4. Heck, it was obviously absurd. About the only thing a space station will give you that satellites won't, that's relevant to manned space flight, is data on human response to accelerations between zero and 1g; We're dismally ignorant of how much acceleration it takes to keep the human body from irreversibly declining, and the Space Station contributed nothing to clearing up that ignorance. While the presence of humans on the station produced vibrations which inevitably compromised zero g experiments.

    And it was gold plated, no effort at all to figure out how to build in space affordably. Bottom line, the station was designed to give them an excuse to keep flying the shuttle, and not much more.

    That space station they cobbled together from an old Saturn booster actually taught us more about living in space!

  5. Give me one twentieth of the NASA budget and free bidding and I will have people living on Mars in 15 years.

    I find this claim very hard to believe.

    Please explain how you are going to solve these extended-mission space-medicine problems

    — high-energy radiation

    — human physical deterioration in low-gee environments

    which are currently the showstoppers in any real Mars plan.

    At present, even a one-way trip to Mars under the best of circumstances would make the crew gravely ill.

    A little bad-luck solar activity, or a two-way trip, and you've got a spaceship full of corpses.

    You _are_ aware that the astronauts are seriously ill when they return from the ISS, right ?

    And that none of the things they've tried have materially reduced the toxic effects of extended zero-gee ?

  6. the station was designed to give them an excuse to keep flying the shuttle, and not much more.

    I find myself agreeing 100% with Brett Bellmore.

    This would worry me, except that on this issue we both agree with Robert Park

    of the University of Maryland, long-time author of <a>What's New

    and former President of the American Physical Society.

    No important science of any kind has been done or will be done on the ISS.

  7. "Please explain how you are going to solve these extended-mission space-medicine problems

    – high-energy radiation

    – human physical deterioration in low-gee environments

    which are currently the showstoppers in any real Mars plan."

    Try Mars Direct; I think Zubrin actually has a pretty good scheme for dealing with this: You send the base ahead, then the astronauts by high speed trajectory after it's landed and telemetry assures you it's in good shape. (There's quite a bit more to it than that, of course.)

    And then you DON'T bring them back right away.

    From an engineering standpoint, there aren't any obvious show-stoppers. It all revolves around not bringing with you the fuel to return, which improves your mass ratio problems dramatically, enabling the use of higher speed trajectories.

  8. "And that none of the things they’ve tried have materially reduced the toxic effects of extended zero-gee ?"

    Well, yeah, that's my chief complaint about the space station design: It doesn't ROTATE. The only thing they haven't tried to reduce the toxic effects of extended zero-gee is partial-gee. We have two data points: 1 is enough, zero ain't. We've got no clue where the cutoff is between.

  9. We have two data points: 1 [gee] is enough, zero ain’t. We’ve got no clue where the cutoff is between.

    Yeah. It would be a real shame to learn that 0.38 gee (Mars's surface gravity) isn't enough after you've already got astronauts on the surface and committed to a long stay.

    I appreciate Zubrin's optimism, but as an engineeer, I'd sure like to see at least one working tethered-rotating spacecraft as proof of concept before accepting his assurances that we know how to do that.

    And I'm not much encouraged by his hand-waving about high-energy radiation.

    The interplanetary environment is very inconstant; that water shield will be fine with luck.

    And I'm not sure that it's currently politically feasible to launch the little nuke that he posits to power his pre-delivered pantry and fuel/atmosphere factory. It's my impression that Cassini was the last of that breed, and that the nuke Zubrin is talking about is not the Cassini model, but something with much higher output — that is to say, new development, something never before launched.

  10. I'll join the love-fest for the manned program cuts, for Joel and Brett's comments (Brett and I rarely agree, but we do in this thread), and especially for Bob Park.

  11. Agreed, with luck. You know what? You won't find a shortage of people, well qualified, willing to buy that lotto ticket.

    And I really think the politics of nuclear power are strange, and very different among the political elites than the general public.

    The bottom line for me is, it was doable, but Nasa was never, ever, going to do it. We're not the country that put a man on the Moon anymore. Well, not the country whose government did it. The private sector will eventually get around to doing it, if the government doesn't stand in their way.

  12. This 2005 essay on the pointlessness of the Space Shuttle (and how it got that way) ought to be a classic.

    “Taken on its own merits, the Shuttle gives the impression of a vehicle designed to be launched repeatedly to near-Earth orbit, tended by five to seven passengers with little concern for their personal safety, and requiring extravagant care and preparation before each flight, with an almost fetishistic emphasis on reuse. Clearly this primitive space plane must have been a sacred artifact, used in religious rituals to deliver sacrifice to a sky god.”

  13. The canceled “back to the Moon” program was NEVER going to get there.

    Perhaps not for a while, but in the process we would have gotten the Ares – a heavy lifter rocket (the kind that's necessary if you want to do anything at all beyond a Low Earth Orbit (LEO). And with that canceled, NASA is going to be relying on the Russians for transit for an undefined period into the future.

    – high-energy radiation

    It's not that hard, particularly for colonies on Mars or the Moon – they can just burrow into the ground and use that as shielding.

    Transit there is another problem, but the key is to build faster ships – nuclear thermal rockets and the like. Anything more than a couple of months and you'd be better off having a pair of rotating sections rotating counter to each other (although that introduces whole engineering problems of its own).

    The interplanetary environment is very inconstant; that water shield will be fine with luck.

    Luck's a factor in all space missions. The Sun could suddenly flare up tomorrow to an exceptional degree and kill everyone on the ISS, for example. You just have to weigh the risks of that happening with the benefits.

    It’s my impression that Cassini was the last of that breed

    RTG's? Somehow I doubt that, although there's always the chance we'll get another idiotic protest led by Michio Kaku. They're far too useful, particularly if solar power is unfeasible.

    I must add that the whole situation makes me sad. There are issues with long-term colonization off-world, but we'll never know exactly how we deal with all these issues if we never bother to do the testing for them off-world, or set up off-world colonies, or the like. It's risky, and probably expensive (but piddling in costs compared to most other US government programs), but very much worth the benefits if it gives humanity a chance to survive independent of whatever catastrophes occur on Earth.

    Let's not fool ourselves – we're sitting on top of a cosmic bull's eye. Sooner or later, one of those Near Earth Asteroids is going to smack into us, as they seem to do every so often, and that will be it for humanity – if we're very lucky, we'll be reduced to hunter-gatherers, and die off that way. Or a more local catastrophe will occur, like a nastier version of the Deccan Traps eruptions that occurred tens of millions of years ago.

    That is, of course, assuming we don't just do ourselves in. We're in an era where genetic modification is just going to become easier and cheaper – try to imagine the effect that will have on biological weaponry. Think about what it might mean to live in a world where some nutbar with a cheap lab and set of equipment can engineer a tailored biological weapon that could kill off north of 90% of humanity. That's not far off; my guess is that we'll be in risk of that well within the time period between now and the middle of the next century.

  14. My own thought about this is that we are wasting our time talking about manned colonies or even long distance manned exploration until we have a better propulsion technology than chemical reaction motors. These are only marginally better (if at all) than they were 40 years ago, and are not likely (well, actually, never going to happen) to get any better. In terms of thrust to weight ratio, the best designs were already developed by the early 1970's. Those Soviet guys were really good.

  15. We're also wasting our fime talking about space colonies until we can make a sealed self-sufficient system that can last indefinitely with energy as its only input – like the failed Biosphere project.

  16. We’re also wasting our fime talking about space colonies until we can make a sealed self-sufficient system that can last indefinitely with energy as its only input – like the failed Biosphere project.

    Why "energy" as the only input? It's not as if a prospective space colony won't draw on outside resources, whether planetary (if it's sitting on the Moon or Mars) or asteroids (if it's orbital or wholly space-bourne). What we need to figure out is how to build long-lasting colonies off world, with the ability to maintain themselves entirely from non-Earth materials and resources if necessary.

    My own thought about this is that we are wasting our time talking about manned colonies or even long distance manned exploration until we have a better propulsion technology than chemical reaction motors.

    That basically means nuclear propulsion, whether Nuclear Thermal Rockets or Orion. Ion drives are another possibility, but they're slow for a long time. There's a couple of ideas for spacecraft based on those, and even some testing (VASIMR in the case of ion drives).

    These are only marginally better (if at all) than they were 40 years ago, and are not likely (well, actually, never going to happen) to get any better.

    Probably not. If I remember right, NASA actually did a pretty extensive study on liquid propellant mixes in the 1960s.

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