Sunday, January 16, 2005

Rocket Science, Worth It?

by Tom Bozzo

In comments here, Nina (C) affirms her, A's and B's commitments to science but raises the basic utilitarian question of what space expenditures have sufficient returns to be justifable against the alternative of pressing terrestrial needs.

My little joke about toy rockets having taken a somewhat serious turn, it's time for a clarification and a summary look at the NASA budget (large pdf).

I previously held up the Cassini probe as an example of a good rocket, and our new ballistic missile "interceptors" as an example of bad, bad rockets. The subtext was that for the enormous sums so far spent on not defending the U.S. from ICBM attacks, you could endow the NASA space science budget.

However, this should not be interpreted as "civilian rockets good, military rockets bad." The latter may be necessary if not good or bad as such. Morover, roughly half of NASA's space expenditures are, by value-of-the-science criteria, colossal wastes of good dollars on bad space ships: the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station.

Of course, the Bush administration's space struggles have given us the irony that the one Shuttle mission arguably worth its expense in scientific yield — the Hubble Space Telescope repair mission — is the one that they've been trying very hard to avoid.

ANYWAY, the FY 2005 NASA budget summary would spend roughly $8 billion on not especially valuable human spaceflight (mostly Shuttle and ISS operations, but including small amounts to fund the Bush "exploration vision") and another $7 billion on everything else, by its full-cost accounting. Most of the rest is a relatively paltry billion in aeronautics R&D expenditures.

For discussion, and as the morning blogging window is closing, I'll aver that the 30 percent ($2.25 billion) spent on Earth science and "Sun-Earth Connection" missions would probably pass cost-benefit muster given, if nothing else, the potential economic cost of our climatological ignorance.

About $1.5 billion goes to extrasolar astronomy and cosmology missions. Another $2 billion is spent within the solar system. That's a bit more than 50 cents per (worldwide) capita per year to better understand the origins of the Universe. That doesn't seem too extravagant to me, either, though the fuzziness of how to value the contribution of basic science to human culture makes a cost-benefit calculation difficult at best.

That leaves about $1.25 billion on other physical sciences research and R&D to build better space probes.
Rocket science is crap.
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