With the recent success of the Space X Falcon Heavy rocket and the publicity stunt to send a Tesla into space, all on Elon Musk’s dollar, what role does NASA play?
NASA brings out a deep sense of nostalgia among Americans. Baby boomers watched on as we lost the initial race to space with Sputnik, the first artificial satellite, and then Yuri Gagarin becoming the first person in space. To rally the nation Kennedy gave his moon speech, “We choose to go moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will, serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win.”
NASA suddenly had purpose, a grand goal and with that its grand accomplishments. At the time we didn’t know what space was or what the moon was.
NASA’s current “Vision” is: “We reach for new heights and reveal the unknown for the benefit of humankind.” Sounds grandiose, especially considering the size of space being infinite and theorists believing we reside in a multiverse. So an infinite number of universes that are infinitely sized.
The space race has ended. We will gain no great new understanding by sending man back to the moon or being the first on Mars. Dozens of countries have space programs and private industry is forging ahead at their own expense. The great beauty of science is they share discoveries. When we figured out the Moon was made of Earth rock we didn’t jealously guard the secret; it was shared with the world, and likewise the world shares its discoveries.
NASA’s highest cost, beside the loss of 14 astronauts, is getting things from the ground into space. Gravity and mass is NASA’s nemeses. It took humankind 58 years to go from the hobbled flight of the Wright Brothers to space, and another 8 to reach the moon. In the 49 years since, we use the same chemical rockets at the same very high cost.
On the current, cheapest rocket, the Space X Dragon, the cost to put my two-year old into space would be $810,000. I, on the other hand would cost $5,670,000 to reach orbit, a one-way price my wife might be willing to come up with.
The Space X Dragon is the cheapest option costing roughly $27,000 per pound to reach space. The alternatives are much more expensive; the Orbital Cygnus costs $43,000 per pound, NASA’s current rocket underdevelopment the SLS (Space Launch System) is projected to cost anywhere from $500 million to $1 billion per launch, and if we hop a ride on the Russian Soyuz they charge us $81 million per launch.
The next highest cost behind mass is humans. To keep humans alive in space we need to bring atmosphere, water, and food. And then at the end of the trip we have to bring them home!
When NASA fails it has a massive price tag. $19.9 billion for the more notable failures. If any other government agency had that amount of destroyed equipment it would be shuttered (OK, not actually true, government loves to waste money).
Challenger Shuttle- $5.5 billion – rocket O-ring failed
Columbia Shuttle – $13 billion – heat shield failed
Mars Climate Orbiter – $327.5 million – failed because programmed in pounds not newtons
Mars Polar Lander – $110 million – crashed into Mars
Deep Space 2 – $29.2 million – crashed with Mars Polar Lander
NOAA-19 – $135 million paid by US and Lockheed – dropped on factory floor
Glory Satellite – $424 million – rocket failed
Orbiting Carbon Observatory – $280 million – rocket failed
DART spacecraft – $95 million – crashed after failure to complete docking mission
A popular argument for continued tax funding of NASA is the size of the overall budget. “It’s just 0.5% of the Federal Budget.” 0.5% of the $3.4 Trillion Federal Budget is $18.4 Billion that should be spent down here. “It only costs $54 per citizen to fund NASA.” It cost each citizen $0 for Space X to launch a sports car.
Musk estimated the cost of the space Tesla at $90 million, to which numerous people said “It would be better spent down here.” Funny how that number pales to the almost $20 billion a year and the $20 billion in failures for NASA. So many are willing to offer up other people’s money, but when it comes to our own tax dollars, the government never seems answerable.
With all the nostalgia for NASA taken into account, they really don’t need our tax dollars, just a fund raiser of private donations. For $1,000 NASA will name a star or planet after you, for a $1 million they will send your ashes up to rejoin the stars from whence we came, and for $1 billion they name the first Martian base after you.
Once NASA is rebooted as a non government organization, they can focus on cost savings.
First, find cheaper ways to space.
Second learn how to manufacture parts, equipment and energy while in space.
Third, send robots, they don’t require much and we can leave them behind.
Finally, miniaturization; 18 year old Rifath Sharook made a satellite that weighed 64 grams. If an 18 year old can do it, then why can’t NASA? The smaller, the cheaper, the better. And when a human has to go, still miniaturization: horse jockeys and Peter Dinklage need only apply.
The planets and stars have been there for billions of years, we can wait a few more decades for private industry to take us to them. We can let Elon Musk worry about “To infinity and beyond,” as we work on Earth problems.
* Michael Telesca is a seasoned salesmen and amateur/hobbyist writer who hates seeing money wasted whether it be personal or tax dollars.