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January 18, 2004

Why Mars?

What is the political explanation of Bush's Mars announcement? Does Bush have no concern about deficits? (Or as Krugman, who hates Bush more than I do, would put it: Is Bush trying bankrupt New Deal programs by raising spending as much as possible?) Did Bush make the speech to score some cheap political points without any plan for follow through? Does Bush not understand how impossible some of the things he mentioned are? (Assembling spacecraft on the moon to reduce costs, for one.)

None of those reasons, I think. Or rather, only a little of those reasons.

The reason for the Bush announcement is that it serves as the perfect cover for killing the Shuttle program. Because of the Mars plan, there has been remarkably little discussion about the coming demise of the Shuttle, despite what a huge part of NASA it has been.

To that I say: Thank God! About time for it too. As Jerry Pournelle says over and over again, the most important task for the Shuttle is to keep 20,000 NASA employees employed. They stay employed whether one Shuttle flies or five do. It is the most expensive way to get to space ever devised.

We will see a Shuttle replacement within a decade. I truly hope that it is some sort of one-use module that reenters Earth's atmosphere with ablative heat shielding. You can throw one of those on any sort of generic rocket that you like. Nice and simple. Therefore cheap as well. We have the ISS now, and can use that whenever we need space in space.

Still, I do consider it truly unfortunate that a lot of NASA money is getting pulled out of unmanned exploration in light of Bush's Mars plan. The Hubble Space telescope has been mentioned. (Actually, at current Shuttle costs, the maintenance trip is probably not worth it.) We will see more harmful program cuts in the future. I do not blame Bush for it, however. The only real solution is to kill NASA. And not even Bush has that power.

Posted by Thrasymachus at 07:55 AM