phi (totient) wrote,

ruminations on manned space programs

Manned spaceflight is a boondoggle. During the cold war, boondoggles were the weapon of choice: the objective was to get the "enemy" to spend more money on the {space, arms, whatever} race than you. Kennedy may not have understood this explicitly, but Reagan (or someone in his administration) did, and furthermore understood that we were losing the manned spaceflight boondoggle war as the Russians were (and still are) just plain better at making rockets than we1. I don't think Bush gets this, but after a long hiatus through the '90s, we seem to be in a boondoggle war with China now.

If we're going to be doing it anyway, it seems like maybe we should try to do it right.

NASA has just revealed a $100000000000.002 plan to go to back to the moon3. This is five thousand times as much money as Dick Rutan spent to win the Ansari X prize. Sure, the moon is a lot more than 100km away. But we've been to the moon before, for a lot less money, starting from a much smaller technological base. What's going on here?

Part of it, I think, is what I call the US "culture of life". By this I mean that it has become unacceptable for certain kinds of endeavors to result in fatalities, ever. In the 60's, dead astronauts were heroes. Now they're victims. I say let's make them heroes again. And this is where I think the private sector comes in: heroes are people who took on the risks themselves. And that, these days, means a private sector adventurer, not a government employee4.

If we competed against China by announcing (hefty) prizes for private orbiters and moon shots and so on, I think that'd give us an added PR victory as a defeat of centrally planned economic activity, as well. And it seems to me both cheaper and more likely to succeed.

1. Oh, how archaic of me to use grammatical rather than positional declension.
2. Commas intentionally omitted to emphasize the sheer enormity of the number.
3. And Mars too, but that will cost extra.
4. Of course, astronauts (and firefighters, and so on) took their jobs knowing about the risks, and in many cases in order to become heroes. They're just being thwarted by public misconception that the government could keep any of them from dying ever if only it cared enough.
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