Congratulations, NASA! Last week the Mars Reconnaissance Orbitersuccessfully entered Martian orbit. This is an exciting science missionthat’s expected to return some 4 terabytes of data, more than from allprevious missions to other planets combined.

After two years the twin rovers continue to function well, thoughthey were designed for a short 90 day mission. Another fabulous bit ofengineering that does tremendous credit to NASA.

Hubble, too, soldiers on. There’s never an issue of Sky andTelescope that doesn’t have some spectacular image from this amazinginstrument. Last week Hubble found that Pluto’s newly-discovered smallmoons have the same color as Charon, suggesting that they all formedfrom one gigantic impact. That’s a pretty amazing discovery since P1and P2 are some 5000 times dimmer than Charon, and are less than 100miles in diameter. Not bad imaging for objects 6 billion km distant!

I grew up in the space business. My dad, a mechanical engineer atthe time and still ineffably an engineer in outlook even in retirement,spent most of his career designing spacecraft, from early Lunar Modulework, Saturn V studies, the three Pegasus missions launched on SaturnIs, and many, many more. My first job at age 16 was as an electronicstech doing ground support equipment for Apollo. Today I’m on NASA’sSuper Problem Resolution Team, a group formed after Columbia’s tragicfailure to help the organization with big issues.

Though created as a political response to Sputnik, for ahalf-century NASA has been a leading light for the United States,pursuing a noble mission of scientific inquiry even in times whenpolitical scandals make one despair for this country’s future.

But I fear NASA is losing its way.

The archaic Space Shuttlehas cost $145 billion so far, and, along with the space station,consumes $6.7b of NASA’smodest $16.6b budget

Today the Shuttle’s only real mission is to complete theInternational Space Station (ISS). NASA plans some 20launches to finish this platform… yet it’s far from clear why we’respending $100b to orbit a system that performs practically no science.

One might argue that long-duration missions are important to learnhow the human body adapts to space before a years-long manned Marsmission begins. Yet both the Russians and the US have accumulated vastamounts of information about this on Mir and Skylab.

In my opinion the current focus on manned lunar and Mars missions isa mistake that sucks too many resources from other NASA programs.Considering that Apollo cost over $100b in today’s dollars forshort-term sprints, it’s hard to imagine a manned Mars mission runningless than many hundreds of billions… or more. That money just doesn’texist. Even the most optimistic forecasts call for large federaldeficits for many years to come. Considering the upcoming retirement ofthe baby boomers, swelling entitlements, increasing discretionaryspending, where will the money come from?

Voters will be faced with stark choices. Mars or social security?The moon (again) or lower taxes? Surely politicians anxious to getelected will pander to these pocketbook issues.

The funding for Mars and the moon just won’t be there for the manyyears needed to pull these tremendously exciting missions off. We’llspend tens of billions before cancelling the programs. Congress as everhappy with unfunded mandates is already unwilling to put money intoNASA’s coffers to jumpstart the missions.

Meanwhile science suffers as NASA is forced to eviscerate thesehighly productive and relatively (As Everett Dirksen remarked: “abillion here, a billion there, pretty soon you’re talking real money.”)missions.

Seems to me we have two choices: fund NASA at a level needed toreally send folks outside Earth orbit… or be realistic and cancel thoseprograms.

What do you think? (Let the flames begin!)

Jack G. Ganssle is a lecturer and consultant on embedded development issues. Join him to learn how to develop better firmware faster in Dallas and Denver April 26 and 28.

I vote reducing the priority of manned missions and redirecting funding to other research.

While manned missions are fun and glorious, we engineers must always look at the cost vs. benefit analysis. We have to admit that advancement of technologies have made manned missions unnecessary.

These heroic efforts have inspired generations in the past decades, and was a critical part of winning the cold war. But time has changed. We can measure the potency of our neclear arsenal without detonating a single war head, and I buy most of my electronics without leaving my desk. I believe we can explor space more effectively without sending a human there.

On the other hand, space tourism would be a good idea if the profit is invested in our space programs.

– David J. Liu

I live on the “Space Coast” of Florida, and I frequently meet folks who think the NASA budget is wasted. These people typically are complaining while using their teflon coated pans, punching keys on their pocket calculators, or taking advantage of some other technology that saw its first use in the space program. I am reminded of the saying, “if you want to complain about farmers, don't talk with your mout full”.

Yes, it costs a whopping lot of money to send highly trained specialists into very dangerous situations, with advanced materials and hardware, for gains that might never materialize. Can't we say exactly this about Iraq?

I have a radical idea — Let's completely reverse our priorities: Spend $200 billion per year on our space and energy programs, and only $16 billion on war and other such nonsense. A bunch fewer earthlings will be upset with US, and we might not have to worry about America's leadership in science in the coming decades. We might just figure out how to live on other worlds too — a skill we'll soon need if we don't learn how to lessen our demands on the Earth's ecosystems.

– Karl Liebau

For once I think we disagree, Jack.

I say, “Let's do Mars!”

We're always complaining about how engineering is a dying discipline in the USA, and how we don't get the respect we're due (or do we?…)

Engineers were the heroes who beat the Russians to the Moon. I'm an engineer today in part because of the changes that Mercury to Apollo brought.

Engineers will be the heroes again as we head to Mars.

Let's put the money into the project that it really needs to do it right, and inspire another generation of engineers.

President Reagan's Star Wars program didn't inspire because it was something you never wanted to see work. President Kennedy's Space Race was something we could all root for, like the Olympics. President Bush's call for a Moon Race is EXACTLY what we need to improve the science and math curricula, to inspire our best students to go for “real” work instead of MBA's, and to foster another great round of innovation and spin-off's with commercial, materials, and medical benefits for all peoples.

– Andy Kunz

I was interested in your very British mixing of metric and imperial units. The moons of Pluto being 100 miles in diameter but at a distance of 6 billion kilometers. This compares with buying curtain fabric in the UK where the width is in inches and the length is in metres.

– Ian Okey

Yes, Karl, I agree with you.


Space shuttle:

Since 1/5/1972 to-date cost: $8,000/min.

Casualties: 7 + 7 = 14

Iraq war: March 2003 to-date cost: $150,000/min.

Casualties: 2000+

Now, we can vote.

Can we?

Anyone remembers what had happened in your home state of Florida a few years back? Elections 2000

– Roger

I think NASA's expertise is in long range planning. Other than that, NASA should be the poster child for “what not to do”. Basically, if you want to engineer a working product, do the complete opposite of the NASA philosophy.

– Steve King

In reply to Steve King's comment: What the hell are you talking about? Didn't NASA recently pull off a string of amazing missions including the two Mars rovers, comet smasher, comet dust collector? Maybe its the companies that do the underlying engineering work that really get the credit and the people at NASA are just good project managers? It seems that NASA is on top of its game.

– Jut S

I believe the mars program satisfies only a small group of snooty enthusiasts. The majority of people couldn't care less. I don't see economic or scientific benefit coming off these projects. The most important part of the project are the images sent back and not the science. The images, people get to see but after a while the novelty is lost. Most people don't even understand the science. I being a software engineer did not understand the science when I worked on one of the mars projects. The technology used, for your information, is not cutting edge either. In fact some of the electronics are not available anymore.

You could argue whole day that if it wasn't for NASA then we would not have all these wonderful items. I would say if you didn't have a cold war enemy such as Russia you would not have had any of those wonderful things. So ultimately it comes down to having some form of competition in order to be innovative.

– Ray Sid

Response to Jut S:

NASA spends too much money on trying to bring “the product” to market so to speak, using old ideas (do they stifle the new blood?). I note here “SpaceShipOne” that was produced by a private company for “cheap”. The rentry mechanisim that NASA failed at… was based upon the “badminton shuttlecock” (the birdie). As it stands NOW… the Shuttle has to come into the Earths atmosphere at an EXACT angle or else you are doomed. The shuttlecock rentry mechanisim that is employed by “SpaceShipOne” solves the problem of renetry without angle compensation.

This is just one example of how NASA over spends on simple engineering concepts.

– Steve King

I disagree with your implication/statement that the ISS is a mostly useless endeavor. I believe that it is a first step “off this planet” and unless you believe that extra-terrestrial exploration for its own sake is useless, the space station is a good place to put our money. When Columbus went sailing, he had a commercial end in mind but that failed miserably (there turned out to be a continent in the way). However I don't believe that movement from Europe to that continent was a mistake or a waste of resources.

When I said above that space exploration is valuable for its own sake, I was referring to the differing effects on the outlook and imaginations of people from either expansionism or isolationism. The human spirit needs to “look outward” to grow and prosper and for that reason alone, space exploration and the ISS are a very good investment.

By the way, Everett Dirkson spoke of “millions”, not “billions”. In his day, “millions” was more than enough to make his point.

Thanks for yet another thought-provoking article (even though I disagree with you).

jim scandale

– jim scandale

The ISS was/is a jobs program for the Russians. It's time to bail out.

– Dan

There was a time when there may have been an advantage to having a “man on the scene”, but that time has passed. With inexpensive probes bringing back data of incredible quality and quantity, poised to strike at the far reaches of the solar system and beyond, the only reason to have manned missions is to say: “We did it!” Do not forget that the burden of providing human life support is an enormous one. Imagine how much space science could be conducted for that price. Do we need another “Race to the Moon?” How about a prize for the first organization to bring back a whatever from wherever?

– Stephen Wise

As much as I've been getting psyched for the Mars or Moon mission, the costs are hard to justify, and I'm much more in favor of fiscal responsibility. However, that doesn't mean we can't join up with the European Space Agency for some of the larger projects. As I understand, the EU is looking at similar manned missions. Defray the costs of the larger projects, while soloing on smaller, more science oriented ones. Of course, the bragging rights aren't there (in the end, what does that get you anyway? nada!), but benefits of a space program are hard to pass up.

– Pat

NASA has probably outlived its usefulness. I think we sould put the money into the economy by funding PURE research, applied sciences, and other programs with a variety of long and short term benefits to humankind.

What we learn in space about living there does not help my parents, but earth based science is. It doesn't help my children scholastically, since this should be a local issue anyway. But research and applied science may help the USA keep technologically ahead, providing jobs and products that we will need now and into the future.

– Douglas L Datwyler PE

I'm for eliminating human space travel and replacing them with highly intellegent/reliable robots. Much cheeper and safer! Not to mention the thousands of embedded engineering jobs. Just imagine if NASA wanted various companies to develop hundreds of new rovers to explore the universe. Building rovers is not just for JPL.

– Rick

Suppose there is a successful manned mission to Mars. Then what? It's too cold. We can't breathe the air. There's nothing to eat. The long trip does nasty things to skeletons, muscles, and minds. Better to send out the electronic scouts, at least until bio-engineering can breed ape decendants that can thrive on Mars.

– Bob

When I first read the article and think what are we doing in space. I wonder. It is just a place to see things that we really can`t see from earth. To get a close up view of the heavens, which is somethng everyone , being truthfull, would like to see.

I beleive that we are the only humans alive in this or any other galaxy. I believe that the heavens are in place 1) to show us that something bigger than eveloutin created all things. 2) to show off the incrediable power and amazing stability that is required to hold everything in place century after century.

I think of all the people we could take care of by not spending money for exploration in space.

The gentleman before bought out one good point. If we as a human race will ever learn from someones elses adventures, we would be done with all wars, thus having enough money for all project that the majority would like to see accomplished. I vote to end all wars and explore the glory of the creator. Even if I can only view it on the web or in a book.

– Bruce

I am having difficulty with some of the rationale of these responses. My understanding is that NASA missions are for exploration, be that telerobotic or human presence, exploration for furthering some purpose, commercially sponsored or government sponsored.

I for one believe that long term manned space missions are nessesary because I do not believe that greed will abate until all the resources available on the planet are gone or reserved for the chosen few. I also believe that people don't change until they are in pain, so habits won't change until it becomes impossible to continue. True innovation comes under conditions as these.

How about this for a contest, instead of someone bringing the first whatever back from wherever, how about creating a breatheable atmosphere on the moon. It's close, we have the technology to get materials and personnell there, we have large amounts of data on it, it's small, we can monitor progress from here with standard equipment, and there is a commercial interest in it as a way station. Impossible you say? Not if you need to. Everything had a first before it was what it is.

Besides, it would spread a lot of commercial dollars to support industries and generate some jobs and innovation that haven't been around for a while in these parts. It might even give Space Ship One another commercial purpose.

– Cam MacDonald

I personally think that Earth and mankind would be served much better if the money and the brain power – especially the brain power of Engineers – was spent trying to figure out how to protect and preserve our our enviroment and how to eliminate Global Poverty and AIDS.

– Anne

I've come to the conclusion that NASA and war are nearly identical from an economic and politician perspective. They both use tax dollars to keep the economic machine running. War has the benefit of being easier to sell to the public, especially for Dubya. It matches the upholstery on his adopted Weapons of Mass Destruction theme. Kennedy had the charisma and circumstances to sell us the moon.

The winners of the X-Prize are often used to point out the short-comings of NASA, but it's not a realistic comparison. Space Ship One was an achievement because private citizens had not been able to do it before. But people don't seem to appreciate the huge difference between achieving orbit and throwing a shuttlecock straight up in the air. Space Ship One was a big step forward in model rocketry. It goes up. It falls down. It's inspirational! Burt Rutan is my hero, the Mozart of carbon fiber, but he engineers existing technology. He hasn't pushed raw science the way NASA does.

Mars would motivate revolutionary changes not just evolutionary implementations with better karma than killing Iraq just so we can put a petty despot in a cage.

– Curt Daly

I was born the year Sputnik was launched – I watched John Glenn orbit the earth in 1962, when I was 5 years old. Until I was in high school, I watched every manned space flight launch on TV. I lived for 4 years on the Space coast – was flying a Piper when the Space Shuttle Columbia was flown to KSC before its first flight – and I have a picture of my 1 year old on my shoulders as Columbia pounded into space on it's maiden voyage. I've always been a strong supporter of NASA / spaceflight in general.

Now as to costs, lets remember that when NASA spends that 16 odd billion a year, it is a pittance compared to what the US spends on Medicare, Welfare, Social Security and the rest of the government goodies that we all partake of at one point or another. NASA takes a little more than 1% of the annual budget of the USA – given the technology that has been spun off into commercial products (thats jobs folks) – now thats either a really noisy 1% or a really quiet 99% when it comes to allocating resources.

NASA for a long time has not had a coherent vision for exploration. The Shuttle was first concieved to fly on a bi-weekly schedule. After Challenger, the Pentagon decided that having one platform to ride into space was not a good idea. The problems of carrying commercial payloads on a vehicle that also has humans aboard made NASA cancel that part of the program – so the Shuttle mission was basically over, except for the ISS. After the Columbia loss, we've about decided that the Shuttle is too dangerous to fly. We can lose 14 astronauts and conclude that it's too dangerous, but lose 400 people on the roads on a holiday weekend and that's acceptable.

At present, The People's Republic of China – with all of the problems they have – is working aggressively to have a major presence in space. Their government thinks it important to do this. They are basically doing today what we did in the 1960's. At some point we may wake up and realize that in addition to commercial products, China will control access to space – not a good thing, in my opinion – if we want to keep our freedom.

Now all of that is logical justification, but in addition there is that human emotion of the need to know and experience exploration first hand. While it's interesting to watch rovers explore Mars, it is still not the same as being there – and for the writer who thinks that robots can do it all, does that mean that humans are now replaceable by chips & wires? Would you trust a completely automated pilot to fly you and your family in a commercial airplane – it can be done right now. As a former pilot, I want somebody in the left seat who might be upset if the airplane spread the passengers all over the landscape.

“Man must explore…”, said Dave Scott of Apollo 16 – I don't think the phrase “Robots must explore…” has quite the same ring to it.

NASA may have outlived it's usefulness – but only if the citizens of this country have lost their vision for the future. If we turn inward and abandon exploration because it's too hard, too expensive, or we have too many problems to solve here on earth first, we'll have abandoned the spirit that drove our ancestors to come to the USA in the first place – they abaondoned what was safe and known for an uncertain future – but one alive with hope.

That's the USA that I want to live in.

– Tom Mazowiesky

Being an Engineer I don’t like science fiction; I think that ‘Star Wars’ is a bunch of rubbish wrapped in bad tasting obsolete at release time special effects. But when our much ‘adored’ president called for a manned mission to Mars I got all excited and thought of maybe watching at least on of the prequels. And if the idea inspired me, I think that it might have inspired other younger people, not to watch these dreadful movies, but to learn more about space, technology, science, astronomy (and maybe about good movie making too).

NASA is huge waste of money, but if we could afford it why not for a good cause and fun ride?

– Al

RE: NASA article and responses from readers that seem to miss the point.

I believe Jack is focusing us on a real problem of Federal spending and a society wanting more than it is willing to work for or that it can afford – Example: take the action by the congress to increase the debt just today – even though there is no requirement to balance the budget. Some debt is good but this is ridiculous. It is not so much the programs as the debt, you know all those 10 yr T bills that affect your mortgage? What do you think will happen to the interest rate the government will have to pay to holders as that investement option becomes riskier – perhaps a future article could discuss and bring new understanding of the US and world ecconomy to the readers of ESP. Embarassed to say it but Ross Perott had it right with his charts and graphs – the public eye just dozed off. It is up to the educated and enlightened and not suprisingly the people who pay 90% plus of the individual income tax in this country to call our government on these issues!


In Fiscal Year 2005, the U. S. Government spent $352 Billion of your money on interest payments* to the holders of the National Debt. Compare that to NASA at $15 Billion, Education at $61 Billion, and Department of Transportation at $56 Billion. For the current FY06, we've already spent $174 billion on interest payments

– Rob G

Twenty-four engineers with 100+ opinions (AIDS, God, robots). I add few more, since Jack asked for some [rocket] flames:

What is so special about Mars?

We have now enough data what it is like there. Let's develop some terra-forming technology first and test it in Nevada. Or LA?

If majority agrees (not too likely scenario) that “Mars it is”, where does the funding come from? DoD? Feds? Private sector? Tough to sell a “Martian idea” to a politician who just signed a bill to finance 400-billion war, er, peace; sorry Mr. Orwell.

Maybe Google could be interested to expand their pay/click business model to Mars?

The nostalgic Moon landing era: It was mainly a political move, doable on technical level with work that von Braun started with the Nazi's Third Reich idea (V2).

Nothing ever is, what it appears at a first glance: economy, ethics, philosophy – the entire spectrum of human foibles. With NASA in it.

– Roger

As a NASA subcontractor, I think this is an excellent topic of discussion.

It's good to see that most, as well as I, agree that the greatest bang for NASA's buck comes from the incredibly successful unmanned data gathering missions, such as the probes to Mercury, Saturn/Titan, the deep impact on a comet, the Mars Rovers and Mars Reconaissance Orbtiters, the Hubble Space Telescope to name a few. The science payback on all of these has been incredible.

I honestly feel we are not ready for manned exploration until there is a business case. There are many reasons why there is none:

Space travel is incredibly inefficient. 98% of the weight of a rocket is the fuel, just to get off the ground. Can we honestly continue at 2% efficiency?

Unlike the early explorers, we are dealing with a hostile environment.

It takes too long to get anywhere interesting. Travel back and forth from Mars needs to happen in days, not months.

We need to do a LOT more research before overcoming these obstacles. Research such as:

Coming up with a better model of the human brain. This will further the space robotic aspect of future missions.

Terraformation research of Mars and Venus. Eventually we are going to need another place to live, with additional resouces.

We will need advances in robotics to set up stations on Mars so that humans will not have to spend all their time doing that grunt work. We need robots that can build things useful. Mine and process the raw materials, build extensive living quarters, set up something that will make Mars look inviting.

Studies in general relativity, such as black holes. It would be nice to find some method of space travel that's just a tad faster and efficient than what we currently have.

Extending the life of our current planet in the meantime is more crucial than any thoughts of human space travel. Alternative energy methods, eliminating waste, as well as decentralizing the very flawed and inefficient power distribution infrastructure is where we need to begin.

It stands to reason that much of this work will only be possible with international co-operation. One country cannot do it all.

When you consider the technological progress from 1900 to 2000, none of the above is as far fetched as one might think.

Without most of these thoughts on the drawing board, IMHO, human space travel is a waste of time.

– Tiger Joe Sallmen

Outsource it to India! Reduce the cost …get more nations involved and build up your 100 billion in a co-operative way.Most of the above posted views in favour of space exploration talk about it as a significant need for “man” not the “US” alone! So why make the program a defence establishment at all. If it has provided breakthroughs in science let it pervade to a greater level.There was a time when it was required to be secretive, but honestly that secrecy could be done away with in the current scenario (unless of course NASA really deals with a lot of spy satellites (which it probably does)). Shutting the funding off altogether is not a practical solution but opening it up for a cause surely is!

The Indian President is a nuclear scientist and the father of India's current space program. He's pledged the country with a Man on the Moon …. and there is little doubt that he'll see it done. Eventually there's so much space in the universe (pun intended) that nationalistic pride in this area of science is too shallow a concept.

– Gautam Morey

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.