By Sam Pauken
With the passing of Neil Armstrong last week many consider this to be the end of one era of space exploration, and the dawning of another, especially in light of the landing of the Curiosity on Mars and the end of the space shuttle program.
There has been some talk of Mars being the next great frontier in space exploration and the United States ought to make landing a manned mission on mars a priority. An article from LiveScience by Mike Wall questions the long-term financial and economic viability of such an endeavor. First off, the cost for such a mission is gargantuan. NASA estimates that $100 billion would be required over a span of 30-40 years, although costs could easily overrun as they tend to do with NASA program. The International Space Station was estimated to cost around $10 billion, but it ended up costing ten times more. Is a $1 trillion trip to Mars worth it?
Instead of putting a man on Mars, Wall proposes that Mars exploration should remain restricted to rovers, given the success of the Curiosity and its substantially lower cost of $2.5 billion. In addition, NASA can develop other long-term projects that have the potential of delivering a return-on-investment.
- Colonize the moon. This would allow mankind to utilize the resources beyond our planet. We could conceivably have 100 people on the moon by 2050.
- Accelerate the development of passenger space travel. This could create a market for hotels and resorts in space by 2050.
- Develop space-based solar power.
These options would help boost the economy and bring us some benefit for the money that would need to be invested. A Mars mission would certainly provoke a number of inventions and innovations, which may one day filter down to the masses, link Tang (which was by the way not invented by NASA). However the immediate benefits are harder to grasp. Furthermre passing some of the cost of this research to the private sector overcomes the near impossibility of getting Congress to approve billions of dollars in additional spending these days.
The American public seems relatively optimistic and supportive of NASA’s work these days. A CNN/ORC poll was taken from August 7-8 this year of 502 adults. It asked, “As you may know, the U.S. has landed a robotic explorer on Mars that is sending back pictures and data. Do you think this is a major achievement, a minor achievement, or not an achievement at all?”
- 72% believed it was a major achievement
- 18% believed it was a minor achievement
- 9% believed it was not an achievement
Even last year when the news of the end of the Space Shuttle program was circulating, a CBS News poll was taken from June 17-20, 2011 of 1045 adults. It asked, “How do you feel about the U.S. Space Shuttle program coming to an end? Are you pleased, disappointed, or don’t you care much one way or the other?”
- 16% were pleased
- 48% were disappointed
- 33% didn’t care
The CBS survey also asked, “As you may know, the U.S. Space Shuttle program is scheduled to launch its final mission in July 2011. Given the costs and risks involved in space exploration, do you think the Space Shuttle program has been a worthwhile program, or not?”
- 63% answered “Yes”
- 31% answered “No”
- 6% were unsure or refused to answer
Votifi conducted a poll on space exploration shortly after the Curiosity landed on Mars where we asked, “Should the United States endeavor to land a manned mission on planet Mars by the year 2100?”
- 62% answered “Yes”
- 21% answered “No”
- 18% answered “Not sure”
If we dig a little deeper into the data, we find that a Mars mission
- Has more support among males (73%) then females (59%)
- Has the most support in the 18-35 (79%) and Over 65 (76%) age brackets
- Has the least support in the South (55%), where NASA is located
- Has about the same support among Democrats (64%) and Republicans (70%), but has far less support among everyone else (which may include unidentified Democrats and Republicans (47%).
Some of the current bullishness might be linked to the awesomeness of the Curiosity project as well as general goodwill in nostalgic remembrance of Neil Armstrong and the Apollo missions. An IBD/TIPP poll from July of 2011 suggests there are in fact deep divisions among the American public about how best to proceed with space exploration.
- 59% of Americas believe space exploration would be more efficient with less Washington-style bureaucracy
- 10% of Americans think we should spend more on space exploration; 49% think we should spend the same; and 28% think we should spend less
- 6% want NASA eliminated completely
Many think that is worthwhile for man to endeavor beyond the Earth to discover new things, but many others, while recognizing that space is interesting, question the practical benefit that we gain from reaching beyond Earth, especially when our tax dollars, albeit relatively few of them, pay for it.
With the recent successful liftoff of the Dragon by the private company SpaceX, we may be beginning a new chapter in space exploration. As SpaceX must find a way to have a return on investment, we will know soon whether space exploration can be profitable, and whether reaching beyond our world can bring a practical benefit to humanity.