Monday, December 11, 2006

Misguided Moon Base

Last week NASA announced plans to establish a permanent base on the Moon by the year 2024. You might think astronomers would be among the biggest cheerleaders of such an idea. I can't pretend to speak for all astronomers, but a little history might help you understand the lack of enthusiasm among at least some of my colleagues.

The whole idea of NASA going to the moon again is part of a new vision for space exploration outlined in a speech given by George W. Bush on January 14, 2004. This vision called for a return to the Moon as part of a longer-term plan to prepare for human exploration of Mars. At the time, the scientific community was stunned -- in part because the announcement seemed to come out of nowhere. It certainly wasn't the result of a grassroots effort by the astronomy community. In fact, astronomers had completed their own scientific vision of the future just a few years earlier, and it made no mention of a Moon base.

So where did the President get the idea? The consensus seems to be that, since NASA was planning to decommission the Space Shuttle and end its support of the International Space Station by the end of the decade, aerospace contractors began to wonder where that generous slice of NASA's $15-billion budget would end up. The new vision provided a definite answer, and NASA began to implement it almost immediately.

In its 2005 budget plan, NASA earmarked $12-billion in funding over five years to support the new vision for space exploration, but $11-billion of this total was "reallocated" from existing programs. To astronomers, this means a likely budget cut for research funding (the Office of Space Science, NASA's main source of basic research funding for astronomers, had a $4-billion budget in 2005).

Of course, now that NASA intends to build a base on the Moon there are many scientists with ideas for how to exploit it scientifically. But this is not a good recipe for getting the most science from the taxpayer's dollar -- it is a bunch of astronomers scrambling to recover from the new source of funding what they have lost from the old one.

1 comment:

Travis Metcalfe said...

Just over a month after this post, the New York Times reported on a study by the National Academy of Sciences that warned of the potentially damaging consequences of NASA's new priorities on space-based studies of our own planet.

"NASA has a mission ordering that starts with the presidential goals - first of manned flight to Mars, and second, establishing a permanent base on the Moon, and then third to examine Earth, which puts Earth rather far down on the totem pole".

Do these priorities really reflect the will of scientists, or even the general public? Time will tell.