Monday, August 22, 2005

A space shuttle at what cost?

What are we trying to achieve with the Space Shuttle, and at what cost?

Well, it looks like the next shuttle launch (Discovery again) will be no earlier than March of 2006, and only after the withering criticism of a seven member "return-to-flight" oversight group who

blasted NASA for still exhibiting many of the same behavioral problems that contributed to the Columbia tragedy, poorly assessing shuttle risks and making the shuttle's return to space more complicated and costly than it needed to be... By the time Discovery blasted off July 26 on the first shuttle flight since the Columbia disaster, it had gone through 15 launch dates. Some safety improvements that could have been made were not because of the push to meet a launch date that was always just a few months away, the seven task force members noted in their critique.
What are we doing? As the Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg says in the beginning of his important 2004 piece in The New York Review of Books (electronic subscription required):
Ever since NASA was founded, the greater part of its resources have gone into putting men and women into space.
The "yahoo" factor aside, how much greater a part?

NASA's 2005 budget allots $7.1 billion to manned space flight. This total includes both the space shuttle ($5.0 billion) and the space station ($1.7 billion), plus some extra for space and flight support ($0.5 billion). For scale, consider that this is 44% of NASA's total budget for 2005.

What of this $7.1 billion actually yields any scientifically important data? I'll ask you. I'm sure some of you work at NASA. But consider this. The National Science Foundation, the leading arm of basic research in the US, has taken it's first budget cut in years, a 1.9% reduction from FY 2004 appropriations amounting to a $225 million cut to basic research and outreach/education relative to the FY 2005 request. From of a budget of over $5.4 billion per year, this may not seem like a lot, but it will mean fewer competitive grant awards, narrower scientific aims, and overall a poorer outlook for science in the US. D'ya think cutting the Shuttle Program (and the president's Mission to Mars) could cover the shortfall and then some?

Some of you might say that we need the space shuttle to service platforms like the Hubble Space Telescope. After all, Hubble was launched with the shuttle and is serviced by the shuttle. But it no longer needs to be. Today, the Hubble could be launched at a fraction of its original $1.5 billion initial cost using unmanned launch vehicles. In other words -- and this is conservative -- cutting the shuttle program ($7.1 billion) would leave us enough money to launch 4.5 Hubbles every year. And assuming we launch just one, think of all the money we could save for basic research as funded by NASA in its earth science program, or by NSF in all fields!

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