by J Scott Christianson, Columbia Daily Tribune Columnist
When I was a teenager, one of my few acts of organization was a scrapbook containing every news clipping I could find on the space shuttle and NASA’s space program. To me, the development of the space shuttle was the next step toward a future in which I could purchase a ticket to the moon, Mars or the next galaxy; all places that while cold and desolate were much more interesting than my eighth-grade classroom.
During the early ’80s, many others were likewise enthused about a reusable space vehicle and continuing U.S. leadership in manned space travel. While early unmanned missions such as the Voyager and Pioneer space probes and the Viking probe to Mars were successful, they were limited in their abilities. It seemed clear any real space science would require lifting real scientists off the ground, and the space shuttle seemed to be the perfect machine for manned space travel.
Now, 28 years after the first space shuttle took off, NASA officials are in the process of retiring the remaining shuttles and replacing them with two more conventionally designed rockets, the Ares I and Ares V. NASA has more ambitious plans for these rockets, however, than just replacing the shuttle’s orbital hauling capabilities. Namely, it plans to return humans to the surface of the moon, establish a base there and then use it to launch a manned mission to Mars — an extremely expensive, dangerous and misguided plan given the challenges currently facing our planet.
A manned mission to Mars will cost tens of billions of dollars. According to a recent report, NASA immediately needs an extra $3 billion per year to keep its plans on track. It is almost guaranteed the costs for this project will expand greatly. Costs cannot be correctly estimated for large projects so unique and untried. And a major risk associated with a manned Mars mission is that, after sinking billions into this project, Congress or a future administration will pull the plug because of cost overruns and delays.
This is exactly what happened to the superconducting super collider project in Texas, which Congress canceled after its estimated costs at completion ballooned from $4 billion to $12 billion. Political and public support of such large science projects wanes quickly as time and costs increase. By pouring the majority of their efforts into this one mission, NASA is betting on the success — and continued…