The Wrong Stuff


Ever since NASA was founded, the greater part of its resources have gone into putting men and women into space. On January 14 of this year, President Bush announced a “New Vision for Space Exploration” that would further intensify NASA’s concentration on manned space flight. The International Space Station, which has been under construction since 1998, would be completed by 2010; it would be kept in service until around 2016, with American activities on the station from now on focused on studies of the long-term effects of space travel on astronauts. The manned spacecraft called the space shuttle would continue flying until 2010, and be used chiefly to service the space station. The shuttle would then be replaced by a new manned spacecraft, to be developed and tested by 2008. Between 2015 and 2020 the new spacecraft would be used to send astronauts back to the moon, where they would live and work for increasing periods. We would then be ready for the next step—a human mission to Mars.

This would be expensive. The President gave no cost estimates, but John McCain, chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, has cited reports that the new initiative would cost between $170 billion and $600 billion. According to NASA briefing documents, the figure of $170 billion is intended to take NASA only up to 2020, and does not include the cost of the Mars mission itself. After the former President Bush announced a similar initiative in 1989, NASA estimated that the cost of sending astronauts to the moon and Mars would be either $471 billion or $541 billion in 1991 dollars, depending on the method of calculation. This is roughly $900 billion in today’s dollars. Whatever cost may be estimated by NASA for the new initiative, we can expect cost overruns like those that have often accompanied big NASA programs. (In 1984 NASA estimated that it would cost $8 billion to put the International Space Station in place, not counting the cost of using it. I have seen figures for its cost so far ranging from $25 billion to $60 billion, and the station is far from finished.) Let’s not haggle over a hundred billion dollars more or less—I’ll estimate that the President’s new initiative will cost nearly a trillion dollars.

Compare this with the $820 million cost of recently sending the robots Spirit and Opportunity to Mars, roughly one thousandth the cost of the President’s initiative. The inclusion of people inevitably makes any space mission vastly more expensive. People need air and water and food. They have to be protected against cosmic rays, from which we on the ground are shielded by the Earth’s atmosphere. On a voyage to Mars astronauts would be beyond the protective reach of the Earth’s magnetic field, so they would also have to be shielded from the charged particles that are sent out by the sun during solar flares. Unlike robots, astronauts will want to return to Earth. Above all, the tragic loss…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.