The New York Times has an interesting opinion piece from S. Alan Stern, an astrophysicist and former associate administrator at NASA, where he questions the focus on an ever more costly Mars mission at the expense of other scientific endeavors. He begins by noting US$2 billion cost overruns in the Mars Science Laboratory.
This decision to go forward with the project, a robotic rover, was made even though it has tripled in cost since its inception, it is behind schedule, there is no firm estimate of the final cost, and NASA hasn’t disclosed the collateral damage inflicted on other programs and activities that depend on NASA’s limited science budget.
Then there is the James Webb Space Telescope, successor to the Hubble, which he says has increased from initial estimates near US$1 billion to almost US$5 billion. The result is other more early concerns remain on the backburner.
In NASA’s astronomy program, the James Webb Space Telescope’s $4 billion in cost increases have prevented the development of other important astronomy missions. In NASA’s Earth science program, the ballooning price tags of missions already being built have severely delayed proposed missions to study global climate change and to pioneer early-warning systems for earthquakes, among others.
Exploration is a powerful human attribute, and space exploration is the ultimate expression of that. And to put those financial figures in context the US$20 billion total cost of NASA is a small fraction of the hundreds of billions the US spends fighting with Iraq and other countries.
But I’m always fascinated, and somewhat appalled by our need to spend billions of dollars and the energy of some of our greatest scientists and engineers chasing a remote dream when we have real knowledge gaps and unexplored problems back here on our own little patch of the universe. It seems kind of hasty to be paying billions of dollars for one robot or maybe at best two humans to go to another (mostly barren) planet for a few days when we haven’t really cleaned up after ourselves on the one we are on at the moment. There are plenty of great scientific discoveries to be made here too. We just need to prioritise them