Saturday, May 19, 2007

The $13,000 bottle of water

Would you pay $13,000 for an 8oz. bottle of water? Even very good water?

Well, guess what, American taxpayers will pay that much, if NASA and its current masters have their way.

At least, according to Gregg Easterbook, writing in the latest (June 2007) issue of Wired, that's what former astronaut and Republican senator Harrison Schmitt estimated, at the rate of $26,000 per pound of payload delivered to the moon's surface. (Well, to be fair, it might be only half that if launch vehicle efficiency is improved.)

What's the point? Simply that the current NASA plans for a manned base on the moon could be an extravagant boondoggle at least a whole order of magnitude more expensive than its previous boondoggle, the International Space Station. Where, as Easterbook puts it, the main work of Space Station astronauts is taking each others' blood pressure.

Easterbook leads off his Wired article with a proposed list of rational priorities for NASA:

  1. Conduct research, particularly environmental research, on Earth, the sun, and Venus, the most Earthlike planet.
  2. Locate asteroids and comets that might strike Earth, and devise a practical means of deflecting them.
  3. Increase humanity's store of knowledge by studying the distant universe.
  4. Figure out a way to replace today's chemical rockets with a much cheaper way to reach Earth orbit.

This is in contrast to what Easterbook takes to be NASA's actual priorities at this time:

  1. Maintain a pointless space station.
  2. Build a pointless Motel 6 on the moon.
  3. Increase humanity's store of knowledge by studying the distant universe.
  4. Keep money flowing to favored aerospace contractors and Congressional districts.

Hey, maybe one right answer out of four's not so bad...

Easterbook's Wired article doesn't seem to be online yet, but an earlier one on the same general topic is here.

I don't entirely agree with everything Easterbook writes. For instance, in that earlier article, he disses NASA's Webb Space Telescope project, while speaking approvingly of the Terrestrial Planet Finder (TPF). I happen to think that both projects are about equally worthy. Neither will directly affect our daily lives, but they will both importantly contribute to "humanity's store of knowledge".

Indeed, it was the TPF which started me thinking about these issues tonight, because I was rereading news articles about the recent discovery of the first potentially habitable Earthlike planet, orbiting the star Gliese 581. (For example, see here, here, or here.)

And especially I noted this: Search for Life Gets Serious. You see, the Earthlike planet at Gliese 581 was not discovered by American scientists using American instruments, but rather by Europeans, in particular a team of Swiss, French, and Portuguese, using the land based European Southern Observatory. The article just cited winds up with this observation:
The daily Tribune de Geneve also praised the scientists, but couldn't help taking a shot at the world's traditional leaders in the study of the cosmos-- the United States.

"American scientists recently estimated that the discovery of an exoplanet resembling the Earth would probably take 20 years," it wrote. "The Europeans didn't wait for them."

Mayor predicted that NASA's Terrestrial Planet Finder and the European Space Agency's Darwin satellite would make increasingly significant contributions in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

That may be unfair. I can't recall offhand what American scientists allegedly made the indicated prediction, but obviously it was much too conservative.

Nevertheless, the race is on to discover Earthlike extrasolar planets, and eventually to detect signs of some sort of life on them. Already, a European-led space mission named COROT (see here, here) has detected its first extrasolar planet. In this case, the planet is a "hot Jupiter" that is not Earthlike. But COROT, which uses the "transit" method for detecting exoplanets, is expected to be able to detect smaller, rocky, Earthlike planets.

A much more ambitious European project, appropriately named DARWIN, and planned for launch about 2015 (only 8 years away), will be capable of detecting signs of life on Earthlike planets.

So what do NASA and the US have planned? First off, there is the Kepler Mission, planned for launch in 2008. It is designed to detect Earthlike planets, using a 1 meter telescope. Like COROT, it relies on the transit method for identifying exoplanets.

But beyond that, NASA plans are at present "up in the air". The follow-on to Kepler is named the Space Interferometry Mission (SIM). It was originally planned for launch in 2009, but according to its web page "The SIM PlanetQuest project schedule is currently under revision. An updated schedule will be published here when it becomes available." In other words, it's on indefinite hold. If/when SIM is launched, finding Earthlike planets is only part of its objective (being limited in this case to a search of about the 250 closest stars).

And beyond that is the Terrestrial Planet Finder. It is designed to detect both Earthlike planets as well as signs of life. Originally, like DARWIN, it was planned for launch around 2015. Unfortunately, like SIM, the project is currently on indefinite hold – while NASA fumbles around trying to figure out how, or why, to spend $13,000 to transport an 8 oz. bottle of water to the moon. And a few hotshot space jocks to fly along, so there will be someone there to drink the water.

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Blogger tdstephens3 said...

An American Physics Student In England has an interesting post. As an undergrad math major, a future contributor to science(?), and an American citizen... I do hope that NASA and the public will drop these foolish ideas of colonizing our solar system while we have such a feeble grasp on the essential science. Biology comes to mind immediately. Of course, biology is the science that has been growing most rapidly for the past half-century, but the mass that has accumulated counts for basic knowlege and has not been sufficiently transformed into technology to allow humans to galavant around the solar system.

Actually, more important than getting a working knowlege of biology is getting a CLUE about human nature. It is pretty clear that the human race is incapable of working together on a project with such implication.

While I do agree that NASA (and the state funded organizations of other nations) should engage in fundamental science that may be applicable to such science-fiction-like endeavors, emphasis needs to be on understanding and expanding our observations- with no pre-determined application. Pure science.

5/20/2007 08:15:00 PM  

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