Preposterous Universe

Saturday, November 27, 2004
Fly me to the Moon (and then Mars)

Just caught this article at the New York Times:

NASA Chief Sees Mandate for Bush Space Program

The budget increase Congress just voted for NASA is a clear endorsement of President Bush's plan to send astronauts back to the moon and later Mars, the head of the space agency said Tuesday.

Sean O'Keefe, the NASA administrator, said the budget victory over the weekend was "as strong an endorsement as anyone could have hoped" for the national space policy outlined by the president in January, which involves finishing the space station, retiring the shuttle fleet and refocusing the program on exploration.

"This is a great day," he said. "It's a good start."
Now, much as I'm in favor of increased funding for NASA (they pay my salary!), if the increase in funding is actually a resounding endorsement for the President's Moon-Mars plan, that's not good news for science. I suppose there's a chance that the president's motivation for this initiative is really the spirit of exploring the Universe, but I think it's likely that at least some of the motivation is a bit less pure.

There just isn't, at present, a compelling scientific justification for such the extremly risky and expensive operation of sending humans to Mars. NASA has done fabulous work over the last two decades with very successful robotic missions and space telescopes. Many of these programs have already been scaled back or delayed, because of resource shifts to the Moon-Mars program. NASA's recent sucesses have been based on consensus reports from National Academy committees on what its scientific priorities should be, and in some cases NASA has already shifted away from these priorties because of the new Moon-Mars plans.

The American Physical Society put out a press release and a report this week, outlining their concerns. I hope NASA and the Administration take them seriously.

Ideas on culture, science, politics.
Sean Carroll

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