Monday, August 25, 2008

Tight NASA Videos, Part 2

There’s a lot to be said against the space shuttle program, and most of the criticism boils down to the fact that when you attach 2,700,000 pounds of ignited, highly explosive fuel to something as it leaves the planet and then subject it to 3000° F and wildly varying pressures on the return trip, expecting that thing to be reusable basically makes no sense. The space shuttle was supposed to launch once a week and provide a cheap, consistent way to get satellites into space; in actuality, all of the work it takes to maintain the shuttles at a safe level is expensive and time-consuming enough to keep them from going up more than half a dozen times a year. Even with all that painstaking care, we’ve lost 2/5 of the functional orbiters, and the program had to be grounded for years after each disaster.

On the other hand, this is entirely awesome:


  1. In terms of humankind's insatiable curiosity to explore the next frontier, I can see the draw for conquering space. However, there are still plenty of discoveries to be made on Earth and I think that this money could be much better spent understanding our own planet before trying to study others. I'm not sure where to credit this, but I remember reading somewhere that the surface of the moon is mapped more extensively than Earth's ocean floors. How can you justify that? It's ridiculous. There is plenty of life still to be discovered on our own planet. Where the hell is the funding for that?

  2. I couldn't agree more strongly with your fundamental point: we need to fund earth-based science (particularly biology and geology, I take it?) so much more robustly than we are! Your comparison to the ocean floors is particularly apt, as our ignorance there is astounding. (Though, ironically, satellites help tremendously in this regard).

    Your argument can be applied to things much closer to home, too. Take the Large Hadron Collider, for example, which is set to turn on in September. On the one hand, it makes possible some incredibly exciting advances in fundamental physics. On the other, it draws billions of dollars away from a multitude of smaller projects and puts it towards something that's basically experimental theology. It's very easy to get drawn in by huge-scale projects that promise deep answers, and thereby neglect more mundane but ultimately more rewarding research.

    But I do have some points I'd like to make on behalf of space-based science.

    The first is that space exploration isn't just about space exploration. Even when we're talking about science it isn't an either/or proposition. Most of the data gathered by the robots exploring Mars, for example, is much more exciting for geologists than physicists or astronomers – it gives them a second source of information about the composition and evolution of planets, which helps answer questions that can't be answered by observing earth in isolation. Romantic excitement about space travel aside, there really are things that we can't do from the ground, and scientists from literally every field have benefited from space-based experiments or observations.

    The expense is not always warranted, of course – especially when it comes to manned spaceflight, which is ungodly expensive for obvious (and not-so-obvious) reasons. As I noted, the shuttle ended up being tremendously more expensive and less useful than its designers thought it would be; and given the "hiccups" that the shuttle's replacement is going through, I'm sure that will cost more than it's worth, too. By contrast, however, the Mars Rovers cost less than $1 billion (over nearly ten years) and have been exploring Mars with tremendous success for more than three years now.

    To put this in real terms, NASA funding comprises less than 1% of the US budget, whereas military-related spending clocks in at a horrifying 64% – $632 billion in 2007. So really, my justification to you is this: funding for important science really need not, and should not, come from other scientific fields. We could do a better job partitioning funds, but all of the fields are there for a reason and funding should really be increased across the board.