Friday, October 13, 2006

Mission costs

OK, so there's been some contributed discussion to this blog recently about how wimpy the Mars exploration plans seem to be, and how getting a big rig over there to do it right is really what we need. I don't intend this blog to turn into a political forum, but seeing as it's *my* blog, here's my take on it:

Space exploration is difficult. Space exploration is risky. Space exploration is expensive. Every time a mission fails (because it is difficult), the public demands that the next mission not fail (become less risky) and therefore the price goes up (becomes more expensive). Remember that 90's NASA mantra, "Faster, better, cheaper?" The inside joke was that you could only choose two out of the three.

During the era of Apollo, Viking, and Voyager, space exploration was driven by political pressure, not by science. Each Viking lander cost $1 billion in the early 1970's. That's something like $5 billion in today's money. The Apollo program is estimated at about $100 billion in today's money. Even the Russian Luna rovers are estimated to have cost $1-2 billion each back then. Of course, we have developed more and better technology, bringing the cost of missions down, so using today's technology, a Viking mission might cost $1.5-2 billion. Current Mars Sample Return estimates run from $2 to 4 billion. The reality is that putting a huge drill rig on Mars is not able to happen in the curent climate, where space missions are seen as being driven by science, and society just doesn't think it needs that much science.

I'll accept criticism that NASA, like all big government agencies, spends a lot of its money on bureacracy and could really use more imagination. But even if you were able to somehow cut the costs in half, billion-dollar Mars missions driven by science, however supercool and fantastic science it is, are going to be nearly impossible to fund until society sees them as valuable to them. Let's make a cynical comparison here: the movie Titanic grossed 1.8 billion dollars. Yes, the world's people spent $1.8 BILLION to go see one darn movie. That's three Mars missions right there, for one single movie.

OK, end rant. No more politics. Back to science!!!

1 comment:

the dude in the back said...


Most of America doesn't notice the NASA missions. The idea that the American people require the missions to be safe I think is the product of political spin doctors and main stream media.

At the end of the Apollo missions, America seemed less interested not because the science wasn't good or the missions were dangerous, but because, by and large, America was becoming desensitized to the drama of the event. I mean look at all of the things that NASA was competing with in the last year of the Apollo missions.

So now flash forward to 2006. The question remains in the average American's under sciencetized mind (yes I know that isn't a word) "What the heck do we need space exploration for when we have the SciFi channel? "

Let us forget for a moment that genuine Space Girls and Guys such as you and your kind, are making discoveries every day that, in one way or another, do or will contribute to our society.

The issue isn’t the hard work you are doing or the relevance of the science or the danger or even money involved. The issue is that it (your work product and effort) isn’t packaged in sexy 30 second sound bites that are used to draw us in to your one hour reality show that has a really clever conclusion.

I mean shit, I am a red meat eating, Harley riding, 6’-4” bundle of street wise badness and I am hooked on “Project Runway” because I want to know if that bastard, Jeffrey Sebelia cheated by not sewing his own clothes or if the accusation is just a ploy by Laura to have him removed because she will do anything to limit her competition and win that BITCH!

As I see it, the real problem(s) that NASA is facing are challenges associated with competing for the entertainment dollar of average Americans. And let us keep in mind that, educationally speaking anyway, the average American is less than average in the global community. (How else can you explain the success of CSI?)

So the problem isn’t: “Americans want their space science safe and secure for no money.”

The problem is: “NASA sucks at producing a good reality show."

What can be done you ask? (Yeah I know, you didn’t ask… )

Space Station:

If instead of vetting out the emotionally unstable astronauts they threw in a couple of wild cats once in a while their ratings would go through the roof. Americans and the world sit up, pay attention, fall in love with the astronauts and then at the end of the week, vote one to be ejected into space.

Space Shuttle:

If Big Dan Goldwin had stood on a podium before each launch next to a bunch of men and women who looked like the could be the next cast of “Big Brother” or “Survivor -Mars” and said, "Take a good look at these Rocket Jockeys kids. They are the very definition of courage, intelligence and determination. Seven of them are going up but only one will come down and get a five billion dollar budget and free reign to plan and execute their own space mission. Oh and by the way... the shuttle wasn't running right last time I checked, so plug your ears this one could get a little loud." And then patted them on the back and walked away, he never would have had to resign.

Currently the space program is competing with shows like "SG-1", "SG-Atlantis", "Battlestar Galactica", Re-runs of the 83 odd variations of "Star Trek" and my personal favorite, "Space Balls" and what are you using to compete against these shows? Reality, and not even cleverly engineer reality, but REAL reality.

So here are a few tips to help you and the big brains fight this losing war...

The Dude in the back’s quick reference tips for solving NASA’s rating problems:

1) GO BIG! Make your missions MORE risky not LESS and be honest about it. Ham it up a bit. (I like the well drilling idea Tim came up with)

2) Document the drama with digital video cameras.

3) Give the normally stoic astronauts and planetary scientists some acting lessons and not from really good actors like Dennis Hopper either. From people like Hulk Hogan and the ROCK guy and .. ahh .. I don’t really know any other wrestlers, but you get the idea.

3) Don’t cover up mission mistakes, turn them into a TV show.

4) Have more deadlines. Deadlines and people under pressure draw viewers.

5) Limit mission coverage to 1 hour a week, with the exception of the grand finale and the reunion episodes.

6) More planetary scientist cleavage.

7) Hire personal trainers for the guys and get them some ripped abs.

8) Bring in some USMC drill instructors to supervise projects so we can get some more yelling in there.

The list could go on..