Killer Asteroids, Martian Pizza and the Future of Big Ticket Exploration

Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn (R) recently released an annual  “Waste Book” detailing specific examples of perceived waste in the federal spending. As might be expected, NASA was not immune,  being tagged for spending  just under a million dollars on a Cornell University study which involves sending volunteers to a Mars simulation event in Hawaii to test the response and preference to different instant foods.

The specific criticism in the report centers around several issues.   First, there is currently no planned human mission to Mars, and second, one doesn’t appear likely “due to budget constraint that have reduced the appetite for costly space missions”  Leaving the obvious pun aside, the final point is that  NASA already has an extensive menu with over 100 “food options.”

Later in the report, NASA came in for criticism again, both for attempting to develop “Starlight” a massive mutliplayer on-line game, a Mars landing simulation, and an on-line radio station. In another section, NASA comes under criticism again for maintaining the “lessons learned” database, even though according to the report it is rarely used, and then yet again for a new offsite visitor center for NASA Stennis.  DOD space also came under fire (more bad puns) for hosting the 100-year starship symposium.

In terms of analysis,  at least the NASA games called into question  offer more potential for excitement  than another questionable taxpayer game highlighted later on, this one designed to let players walk in the footsteps of Henry David Thoreau at Walden pond (presumably it does not take a year to play )

Regardless of your political viewpoint,  there is no getting around the fact the United States, over many years and multiple administrations, has dug itself into such a financial hole, and built such a crushing debt load, that almost any money spent on space can easily be construed as wasteful spending when juxtaposed against a $16 trillion dollar debt.

Although Coburn’s report focuses on small ticket items, which are easy to pick on, it is difficult to see how big-ticket items such as the Space Launch System can possibly survive long term in a budget environment which is only going to become more constrained.  If it somehow does, the reasons are likely to be equally depressing;  because supporters built a coalition of powerfully connected entrenched interests  which succeeded in passing out enough money that its absence would be noted. Unfortunately, the  resulting infrastructure, like the Shuttle from which it is derived, will be too expensive to have any meaningful long-term impact on advancing the state of space exploration, commerce and ultimately settlement.

There is of course a better way, highlighted by the COTS and CRS programs, in which public goals (lowering the costs of resupplying ISS) are advanced in tandem with private goals (SpaceX’s founder Elon Musks’s desire to achieve cost breakthroughs in space transportation) to the benefit of multiple other players, such as the B612 foundation which will use a Falcon 9 to launch its infrared telescope to hunt for potentially disasterous earth crossing asteroids. Currently however, NASA is silent on any future plans to extend the example of COTS beyond LEO.

That is why in the long run, those technology paths built around serving individual human initiative and desire, whether expressed singly as space tourists, or in groups,  as part of private organizations or crowd sourced ventures may offer a better option than alternatives which depend instead on serving political interests and gaming the outcome of the next election.

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