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"Mars madness" and "Search for extraterrestrials"


Obama's Asteroid Boondoggle

The President's budget-busting search for a legacy.

June 2011

President Obama wants to follow his predecessor in planning a great space venture to be remembered by. Let's hope Congress, at least, realizes the folly of this hyper-expensive and unnecessary budget-buster.
In January, 2004, President George W.Bush proudly announced a grand plan that would put him on a par with JFK as the Space President: The United States would spend about a trillion dollars of our taxes to send astronauts to the planet Mars. (Read the BRJ essay on that for why that was a bust.) For our trillion we might have got information on whether there had ever been life on Mars. Or we might not. That depended on variables outside our control. It was a ridiculous and completely irresponsible plan for a country that was sinking dangerously into debt, and when Mr.Obama took over the presidency he seemed to recognize that, as he summarily cancelled Mr.Bush's hoped-for legacy.

But it seems that someone – the aerospace and military communities, very likely – bent Mr.Obama's ear:  Psst – we need manned spaceflight . . . We need to maintain leadership in space . . . We'll become a second-rate power . . . etc, etc.   The same arguments we always hear when there's a suggestion that we need to concentrate our limited budget on our more pressing problems at home. It may not have been a hard sell. This President was also searching for a great legacy, especially with his vaunted health plan in difficulty in the courts. (And perhaps headed for more difficulty at the Supreme Court – see this BRJ essay.) And so, in April 2010, Mr.Bush's "leapex" (from a web site of military slang: "Leapex: A particularly stupid and useless exercise that for some reason the brass has ordered to be done now, but can't reasonably be done now, and probably shouldn't be done at all. An especially egregious form of boondoggle.") – I say again, Mr.Bush's leapex arose again like the phoenix, in slightly altered plumage, when President Obama announced at Cape Canaveral:

"By 2025, we expect new spacecraft designed for long journeys to allow us to begin the first-ever crewed missions beyond the moon into deep space," And, "We'll start by sending astronauts to an asteroid for the first time in history." The President did not explain the need to make deep-space manned flights, nor was he clear on the aims of such missions. While George W. Bush had at least pretended to a significant (?) scientific purpose in his planned "Mars madness": has there been life on Mars?, Mr.Obama's proposed manned mission to the asteroids seems oddly purpose-less. It seems to be motivated by such intangibles as pride in memories of the Apollo years and a wish for admiration, both for the USA and for Obama personally. (How much admiration would there be for a country that goes bankrupt while borrowing heavily to buy glitz?) But NASA has clarified that they will also look at such "important" questions as: is there water in an asteroid?  All they can ask is, of course, is there water in this one asteroid? For they'd only be going to one of the hundreds of thousands of sizable rocks. So if they don't find water in the rock, they will know nothing other than that at least one asteroid doesn't have water. Unfortunately, if they do find water, they will know no more than that at least one asteroid does have water, something we already know.

To be sure, NASA claims that study of asteroids can tell us much about the original state of our solar system. Perhaps, but the oft-repeated line about asteroids being virgin solar system material is bunk. Their hard, compressed composition tells us that all rocky or metallic asteroids (essentially all asteroids) have been part of good-sized previous planets or "planetesimals" (growing planets in the making) that fragmented in the distant past, likely as a result of collisions. Thus all asteroids have been gravitationally compressed and subjected to the geologic, physico-chemical, metamorphic forces of planet building, including heating, element sorting, mineral building, grain sorting, radioactivity, perhaps volcanism, etc. These rocks are left-overs from early stages of planets (so is our moon), but they are far from original solar system material.

The cost of this boondoggle isn't clear yet, but it will be hundreds of billions of dollars. The trip, currently envisioned for 2025, would last about six months, half as long as Mr.Bush's planned Mars adventure. But six months or twelve, the requirements for crew mental and physical health, for protection against cosmic radiation and solar flares, the danger of collision with micrometeorites, and other issues are similar (recheck the essay on the Mars mission for more on these hazards), and they all argue for using smaller, cheaper and safer unmanned probes for all missions unless the mission cannot be accomplished without a crew. On Mr.Obama's asteroid mission there appears to be no good reason to subject a crew to the hazards of such a flight, and it appears that the only actual purpose that will have been achieved if the mission is successful is to have sent a crew to an asteroid. Nothing, in other words.

In the end the question is, how vital is it to our national interest that we spend hundreds of billions of dollars to 1) buy international admiration for the US and the President, and 2) try to quickly get answers to the scientists' not-yet-formulated questions about the early solar system? Are such goals actually more important than keeping the US out of bankruptcy, or having ensured that, doing something useful for the millions of our citizens who live in desperate poverty, in conditions that breed malnourishment, disease, family crisis and violence, children developmentally and educationally "left behind," and crime – all of which continue to rot our society from within? While school budgets are being slashed throughout the country because we can't afford to properly educate our children, does it make sense for President Obama to propose to borrow hundreds of billions of dollars from China to feed our pride and/or find out "something" about the early solar system? My vote is No!

Of course it's fruitless to argue against a politician's words, because what the politician says is rarely what he means. Mr.Obama is not really concerned about the early history of the solar system, and his appeal to pride is equally a red herring. Those are not the reasons the "military-industrial complex" wants this boondoggle. The real reason is evidently that the program is a test platform for development of new missile and space technology, intended largely for military purposes, such as in an expanded US space weapons program. The public rationale given for the asteroid project is simply an effort to deflect congressional and public scrutiny from a military development program.

Nevertheless, this program must be argued on the basis of the rationale offered by the President. And on that basis, nearly all the scientific benefits of a manned mission to an asteroid can be got at a fraction of the cost from unmanned flights, which in addition will further develop remote control technology. The business of borrowing billions to build pride is so irresponsible that it does not even merit discussion. While I agree that an ongoing program of space exploration has value, there is no hurry, and the program should of course be carried out within our economic means and preferably with the participation of other nations. As the International Outer Space Treaty has it: "astronauts shall be regarded as the envoys of mankind." The US taxpayer has carried too much of the burden of space exploration and development. (Think of the GPS system – Global Positioning System – that is used by everyone in the world, but was developed and continues to be funded entirely by the US taxpayer.)

Mr.Obama's asteroid journey deserves the same oblivion as Mr.Bush's Mars visit, and it should be nixed by Congress before another dime is spent on it. Let's develop a truly international space exploration program, with international funding, in the spirit of the Outer Space Treaty, to take our next great leaps into space. And let those leaps come when we're ready to leap. Right now we're crawling, if not staggering, economically.

© 2011 H. Paul Lillebo

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