Pointless Missions to Space

Author’s note: This originally appeared on This Blog Intentionally Blank on 30 January 2012.

There has been a great deal of debate in the press lately concerning U.S. Presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich’s proposal to set up a permanent station on the moon by 2020. It was meant to be his “JFK moment.” This post is not about Newt. It is about the mission to the moon (and beyond).

Most of the press is howling about the futility of the mission, and the “unaffordable” cost. The mission to the moon is expected to cost in the tens or hundreds of billions. Indeed, even the cost of NASA’s next-generation rocket has “soared” to $44 billion.

One CNN contributor, David Frum, for example, cited the International Space Station (ISS) as evidence of the pointlessness of space missions. He reminds us that the ISS has cost $100,000,000,000 US to date. Wow, that’s a lot of money. Isn’t it?

Well, yes and no.

The ISS has been in orbit for 4,819 days as of this writing. That $100B works out to be $20,751,193 per day. Wow! That’s a bunch of money. Well, wait. The ISS is a joint project of the EU, Russia, and the US. For the sake of simplicity, we will assume it’s the US and Europe, since for all intents that is the case. The others would participate, if they could, most likely. The population of the US and Europe, according to the UN, is currently around 1.157 billion persons.

If we do the math, we see the $100B ISS has cost its taxpayers a whopping $86.43 per person. For a household of 4 people, that’s $345 – over 11 years! In other words, it costs our joint populous less than $0.02 each per person per day to keep those 6 astro/cosmonauts in orbit.

Two cents. Not even two – 1.8. Give me a break.

Okay, I’ve got my 2 cents worth, I figure, so let’s stop whinging about the cost. It’s trivial, in the big picture. For some perspective, according to Wikipedia, the combined Wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan have cost between $3.2 and $4 trillion dollars. That’s 4, with 12 zeroes.

Did you get that math? It’s 32 to 40 times as much as the space station. What did we get for that money? Osama bin Jackass is dead. So are most of his dearest friends. Wow. Thanks, and I mean it. Is anyone out there broke as a result of spending that whopping $3.54 per person per day on the war against terrorism? A little bit, sure. Anyone want their money back, at the cost of a reconstituted Al Qaeda?

No, I didn’t think so. Sometimes, it’s not about the money, is it?

Okay, so forget the money. “What’s been the point of the mission?” as Mr. Frum so correctly asks. To prove we can. He says that defines futility. Well, perhaps he forgets that we in the US have had people resident full-time at the South Pole for decades. As such, we already have a great deal of experience in maintaining a remote science population, in a hostile environment, where no one can get in or out for months at a time. Why are we doing that?

Because, there are only two states of being with knowledge: we grow, or we die. The scientific community is unwilling to die just as it finds its stride.

We are simultaneously developing robot technology. Who’s to say we will need astronauts on the moon, or Mars? Perhaps we will have intelligent, mobile robots doing the bulk of work in our stead. Of course, no real scientist would sit still and let a damned machine have all the fun.

As a science fiction writer, I enjoy mapping technological developments, and writing stories that push the envelope a bit. Much better writers than I have done so for decades, often, perhaps, even inspiring the research that proves or disproves the fiction. What is the point of a world without “futile” science, devoid of seeking for the sheer point of seeking?

It is to live in a dead world, where we have decided that pure Research and Development has no purpose. It is to allow our technology to die on the vine, rather than pluck it, develop it, and harness it.

Mr. Frum, we spent $800,000,000,000.00 on the Iraq War alone. (Some of us decried the futility of that exercise even before it started.) I, for one, as a taxpayer, have no problem with spending 12% of that amount to ensure that my future grandchildren have stories of adventure to hold onto, of heroes to cite, or planets to dream of. We must go to space, we must.

Why? Because to see the stars and not reach for them is futility. They are there, and so, we must be as well. It matters not if you believe they are the product of God, or merely star stuff, regurgitated and reformed from a Big Bang. They are the stuff of which we are made. That is certain. We as humans, must reach space, for it is home.

I, for one, want to go home. Star stuff keep you strong.

7 thoughts on “Pointless Missions to Space

  1. Not sue you hear me when I tell you how good a writer you are. Maybe my voice just isn’t enough. In all truth it shouldn’t be, you should be hearing this from many people. But I do wonder if you weren’t in love with me wether my words of encouragement would mean more to you.


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