Over on the inestimable Fr. Z blog, the topic of funding NASA for manned space exploration came up. I opined:
We’ve learned more, by far, from unmanned exploration, particularly the Hubble and the planetary probes, than we’ve ever learned from manned space exploration, on both a total and bang-for-the-buck basis. If you want science, fund unmanned space projects. If you want to indulge your dreams of SciFi space fantasies, then fund manned exploration – but the Enterprise is not going to be beaming anybody up any time soon.
One of the most tempting errors regarding technology is the assumption that solutions to any problem are just a matter of time. Back in the day, Buckminster Fuller, a prime victim of this sort of thinking, predicted that we’d be traveling faster than light by now – because, you see, if you plot the top speed at which people travel over time, you’ll see this exponential hockey-stick: in 1700, we could go maybe 40 mph on a fast horse; by 1850, maybe 100 mph on a fast train; by 1950, 600 mph in a jet; by 1970, thousands of mph in a rocket – well, plot that out, and by 2000, you’re at warp factor 5 or so.
Didn’t happen, and doesn’t show any signs of happening. We may not get faster, or cheaper. We may not figure out how to keep people alive on long trips or alien planets – at least, not any time soon. Throwing money at it may not make it happen. We need more than blind hope and space cowboy dreams. Do the hard science first.
Given the above reality-check, meaningful manned exploration of even our own solar system will require planetary-level resources – it’s an estimated $trillion to get a couple guys to Mars, and that’s the kind of estimate a sane man would triple. And that’s just a brief trip to Mars, no colonies or anything. “We” can afford meaningful manned exploration only if “we” means all or most of the industrialized nations acting together. Would that be a good thing?
Sure, I’d love it if people were rocketing around in space, colonizing planets, and in general living out our Star Trek fantasies – but I’d like a LOT more data on how we intend to do it. For example, people speak of colonizing Mars. Let’s take a look at that:
The Trip: can we keep a large enough group of people alive and healthy for the many months, possibly years, in space it will take to get them to Mars? This is unknown – there’s radiation, there’s bone and muscle loss, there’s psychological stress. Sky Lab, ISS, moon trips – these are nice, but they don’t really answer the question. But, assuming we could –
Living on Mars: keep in mind that the bottom of the ocean and the South Pole are both far, far more habitable and inviting for people than Mars – so, just for a test run, why don’t we build a self-sustaining colony in one of those places? Y’all remember Biosphere 2? How about we get something like that to work, first off, then replicate it in a harsh environment, then run it for a couple decades without inputs from outside? Once that’s been done, *then* let’s talk about building colonies on Mars….
Cost: it cost a couple hundred million dollars to run the Biosphere 2 experiment in the incredibly friendly environment of Tuscon, where you could drive a semi right on up to the building if you needed anything at any point, most noticeably during construction – and it failed! Now, add the little problems of 1) incredibly more harsh an environment; 2) incredibly farther away; and 3) incredibly harder to get to. Soooo – how much will it cost? How about a rough estimate of a hundred gazillion dollars… Point: nobody knows, and I don’t think anyone can even plausibly guess. A LOT, is all I’m saying.
Hate being a wet blanket – I really love the *idea* of zooming around in space. It’s just that the reality is rather discouraging, and should not be ignored by gung-ho fan club.