NASA’s Future: man or machine?

New York Times Editorial: NASA’s Budgetary Gift Horse: With its hands free to redistribute a hefty 2005 budget, the space agency should funnel more resources into its unmanned programs.

Congress … granted NASA unprecedented authority to move funds about … to stitch together a viable program within the available resources. That puts a special burden on NASA to make wise choices. In most years, there has been a budgetary wall between the manned space program and unmanned scientific programs…. Now NASA will have great freedom to pillage its scientific accounts to pay for the shuttle or space station or the president’s Moon-Mars exploration program, or it can raid one manned program to help pay for another, all subject to final approval by Congress.

One of my earliest memories comes from about 1970, aged four: sitting in my nursery school, staring up at what must have been a tiny black and white television, watching one of NASA’s Apollo rockets lift off for the moon. Before that thrill got diverted into science, I’m sure I would have listed “astronaut” at the top of my list of future careers; even today I think I could overcome my natural cowardice for a chance to make it into orbit or beyond.

But manned missions are expensive, dangerous and not particular useful for science. The Space Station is an exercise in international politics and a way of keeping the Military-Industrial Complex rolling in dough. As for the Moon and Mars, well, I don’t think anyone is quite sure what made Bush suggest it. Sad as I am to admit it, it’s even likely that the money to be spent designing, building and flying an automated robotic mission to fix the Hubble Space Telescope (about which more here) could be better deployed elsewhere in NASA’s science program such as the Beyond Einstein Program, or, say, feeding the poor or curing the sick. Apparently, astronauts are willing to risk their own lives to upgrade the telescope with a manned mission, but maybe that’s not a risk that we, the community of scientists, ought to be even asking them to take.