More editorials

Hmmm… is it a side effect of Thanksgiving turkey leftovers that has resulted in so many newspaper editorial writers turning their attention to NASA? An editorial in Tuesday’s Philadelphia Inquirer [free registration required] discusses NASA’s FY2005 budget. Like the New York Times yesterday, the Inquirer is skeptical about continuing the shuttle and station: “Why continue spending on the shuttles and space station if the results will be of dubious scientific value?” The editorial concludes that “with a federal budget awash in red ink, President Bush and NASA must make sure they’re committing money to the projects likely to yield the greatest scientific benefits.” (Yes, Rand, I can hear your rejoinder already.)

The Palm Beach Post weighs in on a much smaller part of the budget Tuesday: a lack of funding for the Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission (TRMM). Readers may recall that NASA announced earlier this year it was shutting down the spacecraft, which is used in part to support hurricane forecasts, only to reverse that decision under pressure from the scientific community and Congress. However, the FY05 budget failed to include the estimated $28-36 million needed to keep TRMM operating through 2006. “[T]he budget cut for potentially life-saving research is untimely, given President Bush’s push for exorbitant manned missions to the moon and to Mars,” the editorial claims. “Such glamour projects tend to get more attention and money.” Ironically, the editorial undercuts its support for TRMM by including a quote from National Hurricane Center Director Max Mayfield, who said that what forecasters really need is more aircraft reconnaissance of hurricanes.

4 comments to More editorials

  • In an era where we are not doing big science so often any more, it is not unreasonable for scientists to act like economists predict and express preferences. Especially preferences for more money for scientists and less for hefting weighty astronauts.

    I think the biggest argument in favor of the feasibility of interplanetary colonization is that the scientists are saying they won’t learn anything. Now do we have the political will to leave the cradle?

  • Well, I believe that NASA’s is about the only “discressionary” budget to get a significant increase. That would make it stick out like a sore thumb to anyone whose budget _did_ get cut. It’s no surprise that this makes a splash in the newspapers.

    I’ve spent the last six months or so plowing through Asif A. Siddiqi’s one-thousand pages of fine print on the history of the Soviet lunar program. (An outstanding tomb, albeit in need of a few more proofreading passes.)

    Just before going to sleep last night, I read an interesting point. He argued, if I remember correctly, that if you compare the mass of lunar samples returned by Apollo-12, with the mass returned by Luna-16, and compare the total cost of each sample, it is not at all clear that the human flight cost more per unit returned science. This is true even if you ignore the much wider distribution and more intelligent collection strategy for the Apollo samples.

    If anyone is interested in the exact quote, I’ll try to post it tomorrow.

    – Donald

  • Dogsbd

    Robertson: “He argued, if I remember correctly, that if you compare the mass of lunar samples returned by Apollo-12, with the mass returned by Luna-16, and compare the total cost of each sample, it is not at all clear that the human flight cost more per unit returned science.”

    Interesting, and actually very logical when you think about the total mass of an Apollo sample return vs the small mass the Luna robotic retun vehicles could manage.

  • Here is the quote:

    “The success of Luna-16 raised the inevitable comparison with the Apollo program. Soviet commentators naturally made much of their recent accomplishment. Academician Boris N. Petrov told TASS on September 24 that automatic exploration cost one-twentiety to one-fifth as much as piloted space exploration. TsKBEM Department Deputy Chief Raushenbakh was more specific in his comparisons, suggesting on September 28 that the cost of the samples returned by Luna-16 were considerably less than those brought back by the Apollo missions. [Soviet Space Programs, 1966-70, p383.] While the two programs are difficult, if not impossible, to compare, it is a fact that the two Apollo missions up to that point had returned a far greater amount (sixty kilograms) of lunar rocks and soil than Luna-16 (0.105 kilograms). Based on the per capita cost [Sic.] of a kilogram of lunar soil from the Luna mission versus the Apollo missions, there is no doubt that the latter were far superior. But, the amount of lunar soil returned is clearly [a] poor measure of the true scientific value of a mission. In purely scientific terms, the U.S. astronauts conducted a wide array of experiments on the surface while the Soviet controllers were extremely limited in their choice of research. The Apollo astronauts, for example, had a much greater ability to choose particular samples from a very large area compared to Luna-16. Finally, the costs of Apollo were associated with numerous intangible benefits — primarily associated with prestige — which clearly cannot be measured in the traditional sense. Luna-16 was certainly a remarkable technological accomplishment, but it was probably not, as Soviet officials of the day touted, a “cheaper and better” alternative to Apollo.

    “Challenge to Apollo: the Soviet Union and the space race, 1945-1974,” Asif A. Siddiqi, NASA SP-2000-4408,
    page 740.