Men in space: an expensive trip to nowhere

Summary: NASA dreams of manned space flight to the planets, and spends billions to do so. They focus on “how” with no thought of why, repeating the error that led to the failure of Apollo. Like the State Department (wrecked in the 1950s, never fixed) and DoD (same mistakes in a succession of failed wars), NASA seems unable to learn from its experience. For 52 years manned space programs have provided expensive entertainment for Americans and welfare for its aerospace corporations. FAILure to learn is a serious weakness for the government of a great nation.

Given time, a desire, considerable innovation, and sufficient effort and money, man can eventually explore our solar system.Given his enormous curiosity about the universe in which he lives and his compelling urge to go where no one has ever been before, this will be done.

Report by President John F. Kennedy’s advisory committee on space, 10 January 1961.

Space Dreams
Science Photo Library


  1. Men and Women in Space: a dead end.
  2. Next steps on the road to nowhere.
  3. Journalist cheerleaders.
  4. Comparing space to other big projects.
  5. For More Information.


(1)  Men and Women in Space: a dead end.

History consists of missed opportunities and wrong turning onto dead ends. For example, what if Charles Babbage had completed his Difference Engine (a mechanical calculator) by 1850, and on that success he or his successors completed his Analytical Engine (a programmable computer) in the 1870s? What if America had not poured so much of its energy, creativity, and technical talent into the space program in the 1960s? What if we had spent it on some other form of research?

It’s not just hindsight. During the 1950s and 1960s the government commissioned numerous committees to consider the benefits of manned spaceflight; most of them repeated the conclusions of the 1960 Hornig Committee and the 1961 Weisner Committee (quoted above; the Chairman became a life-long opponent of the manned space program): the cost would outweigh the benefits.

Space Station from "2001"
Space Station from “2001”

The first 53 years of men and women in space validated their forecasts. It produced little useful science. The technological spin-offs have been even smaller (many commonly cited ones are myths, such as Tang, Teflon, Velcro, MRI, barcodes, quartz clocks, or smoke detectors). As for the commercial benefits of opening the final frontier, we turn to the definitive account of this wrong turn is Dark Side of the Moon by Gerard J. DeGroot (2006) — “The magnificent madness of the American lunar quest.”

Those who justified the presence of men in space argued that the early astronauts were like the medieval seafarers, looking for places to colonize. But the efforts of Columbus and Magellan were inspired by the commercial potential of new territories — exploration was pointless unless commerce followed. The Portuguese and Spanish courts would have pulled the plug on the explorers quicker than you can say Vasco da Gama if their voyages had been exclusively esoteric, or if they had brought back only worthless rocks. Instead, they returned with valuable commodities — precious metals, spices, trinkets, potatoes — which thrilled the medieval money crunchers.

In addition, the places they sought to explore were, by virtue of their existence on Earth, actually habitable. The same could not be said for colonies on the Moon or Mars. … The Moon, remember, makes Antarctica seem like an oasis.

NASA, with other nations, built the $150 billion space station that does little of commercial or scientific value. Now they plan further adventures.

Project Orion(2) Next steps on the road to nowhere.

The Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle is a spacecraft built to carry a crew of four astronauts to destinations from low Earth orbit to Mars, replacing the cancelled moon-bound Constellation Program. It’s the next step in NASA’s program to go places for ill-defined reasons, as they explain:

NASA is developing the capabilities needed to send humans to an asteroid by 2025 and Mars in the 2030s – goals outlined in the bipartisan NASA Authorization Act of 2010 and in the U.S. National Space Policy, also issued in 2010.

… Our next step is deep space, where NASA will send a robotic mission to capture and redirect an asteroid to orbit the moon. Astronauts aboard the Orion spacecraft will explore the asteroid in the 2020s, returning to Earth with samples. This experience in human spaceflight beyond low-Earth orbit will help NASA test new systems and capabilities, such as Solar Electric Propulsion, which we’ll need to send cargo as part of human missions to Mars. Beginning in FY 2018, NASA’s powerful Space Launch System {SLS} rocket will enable these “proving ground” missions to test new capabilities. Human missions to Mars will rely on Orion and an evolved version of SLS that will be the most powerful launch vehicle ever flown.

NASA: journey to marsIt’s already behind schedule and likely to run over budget.

We see the clearest evidence that the manned space program has been a dead end (to be reconsidered when new technology or needs make it feasible) in the words of enthusiasts. See these brief statements, repeating today the same reasons given 52 years ago, despite the failure to produce tangible evidence for the work and money invested.

(3) Journalist cheerleaders.

When it comes to space there’s a fine line between the press and The Onion. Journalists have written these stories for half a century, probably because we love them. These too probably will prove bogus.

  1. NASA Is Launching a Spacecraft That Will Take Humans to Mars“, BusinessWeek, 2 December 2014.
  2. A rare note of realism slips in:”NASA’s Orion won’t fly again until 2018 at the earliest“, Washington Post, 5 December 2014.
  3. 5 Top Landing Sites For A Manned Mission To Mars“, Forbes, 9 December 2014.
  4. Humans on Mars Soonish Says NASA Bigwig“, Scientific American, 10 December 2014.
  5. Forget Pluto, comets or Mars — let’s go back to the moon“, Dominic Basulto, Washington Post, 12 December 2014.
  6. NASA’s Incredible, Futuristic, And Totally Real Plan To Establish A Human Colony On Venus“, Jessica Orwig, Business Insider, 18 December 2014.

Most of this is fun nonsense. Dominic Basulto strikes an especially mad note at the WaPo (develop it for what?):

If America doesn’t go back to the moon and eventually establish a permanent lunar base there, someone else will. And whichever country is most active in moon exploration will have the biggest say in the moon’s future development. The most likely candidate to do so is China …

(4) Comparing space to other big projects.

As usual, research by the Congressional Research Service provides an invaluable perspective:  “The Manhattan Project, the Apollo Program, and Federal Energy Technology R&D Programs: A Comparative Analysis“, Deborah D. Stine, 30 June 2009.  She compares the Manhattan and Apollo projects in both absolute terms (constant dollars) and relative to the US economy at that time.

  1. The Manhattan Project was intense (in terms of GDP), small in dollars, and brief.  It was an unqualified success.
  2. The Apollo Program was intense, large in dollars, and long.   Apollo met its narrow goal, but was a near-total failure in larger terms (producing no space infrastructure or long-term national benefits).
  3. Energy research has been a low fraction of GDP per year, but massive in dollars and sustained for almost 2 generations — with small useful results relative to the cost.

We’re one for three.  Not a happy record.  We’ll have to do better in the future if we’re to prosper — or even survive.

Congressional Research Service, 30 June 2009

(5) For More Information.

  1. Could a new “Manhattan Project” produce radically new energy sources?, 29 June 2010.
  2. Slashing R&D in favor of more important things, like wars and profits. Who cares about America’s future?, 25 August 2010.
  3. The X-51A is $300 million of fun. Can we spend our money smarter and build a better future?, 18 August 2012.

54 thoughts on “Men in space: an expensive trip to nowhere”

  1. The base of your analysis is very sound, FM. I grew up in the mad dreams of the 1960’s space race and hung breathlessly on every accomplishment. At the time anything seemed possible but the 70’s, 80’s and especially the 90’s brought me crashing down to earth again. Please allow me to expand on it a bit.

    The key assumption that keeps the manned space program going is that they are only one innovation away from making this all work. That is more or less true, but the problem is the scale of the innovation.

    Tuck that thought away for a minute as I use the cost of getting into low Earth orbit as an example. It currently costs $2,500 per pound to get into orbit, the cost of getting anywhere else in the solar system from orbit is probably about the same, assuming you are willing to wait a VERY, VERY long time to get anywhere beyond Mars. So to send a 200 pound man into orbit costs $500,000. Not terribly expensive but not cheap by any means. But the cost doesn’t end there.

    You’ve got to prepare for the local climate when you get into space, providing air, food, water, protection from radiation, cleaning up after the mess he makes (zero g toilets get pretty smelly after a while without constant maintenance), etc. Either you have to find resources to meet these needs locally, or bring them along. The resources don’t exist locally in orbit (space being defined as the lack of matter) so NASA has to either send up supplies or provide the means (and spare parts when something breaks), I seem to recall that using current technologies, you need about 7 tons of equipment to keep a man in space for a year. At $2,500 per pound, that is $35 million. Expensive but still not terrible. But that doesn’t include the weight of the experiments for him to perform, the tools to work, etc. So let’s double the cost to include some gear, that makes $70 million. Now let’s give him some companions who will also be working. The International Space Station has 6 people, so that is $420 million.

    Now let’s look at what a person can do in earth orbit. They can study the earth, but satellites can do that much better and at a tremendous cost saving. They can study space, but robots and satellites can do that better. They mostly study themselves and learn (to nobody’s great surprise) that humans are not well designed for living in space. Gravity turns out to be very valuable to living things, it helps filter our air, collect our waste, organize stuff around us, keep our bodies working well, it even helps us taste our food.

    The Space Shuttle, by the way, was an amazingly powerful and versatile tool but it cost $10,000 per pound to deliver the goods. So modern expendable rockets are a real deal by comparison. Some companies are experimenting with ways to lower the cost but you’re still talking over $1,000 per pound in the most generous estimates which is way too expensive for what you would get.

    So what one innovation could turn the situation around and make it worth going into space? Extremely cheap control over gravity. This would drastically lower the cost of getting into and staying in orbit. It would also drastically lower the cost of going anywhere in the solar system and could be used as a propulsion system to make such an effort tremendously faster and safer.

    Space advocates like to compare the Apollo effort to the Wright brothers and point out that it only took 30 years from the first rickety flights to cost-effective air travel. The history is accurate but the analogy is not. The Apollo program was more like the man-carrying kites believed to have been used in China starting about 700 AD.

    The reason air travel expanded so swiftly when we finally figured out how to do it right was that people had been dreaming about how to use it for at least 1,200 years before an effective way of using had been developed. The same will be true of space once we figure it out.

    I’m not saying that we should not send humans into space, we should for a lot of good reasons, not the least is keeping dreamer like myself thinking about the subject. I am saying that we need to view outer space as a very long term challenge and we are in just the very bare beginning stages of the challenge. The results so far have been mostly about telling us what preconceived notions were foolish and what works.

    As years go by, the human race will learn to get out of Earth’s cradle without hurting ourselves, then we will learn to crawl, walk, run, and eventually fly among the stars.

    1. Pluto (aptly named) is right. You cannot compare the Manhattan Program in terms of ROI to the space program. In fact, it is erroneous to call what NASA does as a continuous program. FM, this is convenient arm-chair quarterbacking. Certainly you are correct that money spent with low returns is comparatively wasteful, but I see no one coming forward with any guarantees to spend it better. I think the conclusion is that governments seem to waste money – brilliant!! no one ever heard of that one.

      What Pluto says makes the most sense. It is NOT that NASA and its contractors are gravy training the US taxpayer for 53 years, it is that people WANT to explore space. Humans have looked to the heavens for all time and traveling there is a normal pursuit. We ARE always one innovation away from great technological advancements. The Space Elevator is a project that has legs:—space-elevators-an-assessment-of-the-technological-feasibility-and-the-way-forward.html

      This article seems to contradict your post. Are you cherry picking?

      We cannot always determine value and validity of human pursuits with dollars and sense…

      Some things are inherent for free people to aspire – as a free nation, as troubled as we are in so many areas, the yearning for exploration is something we should not forgo or forget.

      In addition, we are in competition with other nations, like it or not. We must lead in as many areas as possible if for no other reason to feed our propaganda machine.

      1. Drake,

        I disagree with all points.

        “this is convenient arm-chair quarterbacking.”
        False. I mentioned two reports at the start of the manned space program who accurately predicted its meager outcome, and recommended only a small slow project. There have been many other such reports since then.

        “I see no one coming forward with any guarantees to spend it better.”

        Absurd. There are a host of useful technologies that are starved for funding. There are a dozen or more laboratory projects to build next-gen fusion power sources (e.g., the Polywell). They get pocket lint for funding (the Polywell gots a million or so per year from the Navy, and is looking for new sources). The $5 – $10 billion/year that NASA has spent for decades could have funded a massive R&D “seed” project in the quarter-century since the moon landing, probably producing a few hits by now.

        “This article seems to contradict your post. Are you cherry picking?”

        The article discusses a space elevator. This is unrelated to anything — even remotely — in this post about the past 52 years of the manned space program, and its current projects. Also, I expressly said that future technology might make manned space travel feasible. A space elevator, although not possible with our current technology, would certainly qualify as “new”.

        “We cannot always determine value and validity of human pursuits with dollars and sense. Some things are inherent for free people to aspire”

        Whatever. If you see the majesty in digging holes and filling them up, or other expensive projects that generate no tangible return, that’s wonderful. But there are urgent unmet needs that these funds — and the highly talented people working on them — could be doing.

        “We must lead in as many areas as possible if for no other reason to feed our propaganda machine.”

        That’s the nonsense megacorps feed you to support their picking your pockets. They’ve become so rich and powerful because we’re so gullible.

    2. Pluto,

      “The key assumption that keeps the manned space program going is that they are only one innovation away from making this all work.”

      I’ve read a lot about the space program, and have never seen anyone say that. NASA’s reasons for going to Mars as the next project after Apollo were almost identical in 1970 and 2014. Also, what do you mean by “make it all work”? I assume far lower cost to orbit.

      “That is more or less true, but the problem is the scale of the innovation.”

      That’s true, and quite an understatement. I don’t know of any expert who believes we can radically lower the cost of lifing, supporting, and returning people to low earth orbit — let alone deep space travel — without a revolution in technology. Anti-gravity would do the trick, but is in the same bin as quantum power generation and a host of other science fiction tropes.

    3. FM, you are correct that you do not see the theory of “just one more innovation and we’ll finally be able to make this thing work..” in NASA’s official documentation, but you hear it too frequently if you listen to the engineers in chat rooms or the fans who keep NASA’s budget barely afloat. It permeates the culture of NASA to the point where I doubt the NASA leadership can imagine life without it.

      Examples of this thinking are Single-Stage-To-Orbit (VentureStar), Shuttles running weekly (NASA in the 70’s), we just need a moon base as a destination (Constellation project), Mars would be a great place to colonize (Mars Direct). All of these ideas were proposed by literal geniuses who had done fantastic amounts of math about rockets and orbital mechanics but refused to see that their ideas wouldn’t actually solve the basic problems of a) too expensive and/or b) can’t do anything there we couldn’t do on Earth

      Let’s use Drake’s comment as a fine example of what I am describing. “The space elevator has legs.” First, I want to say that is a true statement, especially if you only look at the math. But we’re talking about moving a decent sized asteroid (multiple thousands of tons) into a high geosynchronous orbit, reshaping the asteroid to be a giant pulley, and then running a cable (36,000 miles long if memory serves) to the Earth’s surface. The orbital math is elegant if a bit freaky.

      But what material would we build the cable from? What would we do to protect it and the weather from each other? What happens if the multi-thousand mile cable breaks? How do you maintain the cable? How do you pay for it? Admittedly the cost once in use (assuming it stays in use) would be very low but the start-up costs would destroy any country that tried.

      Then you look at the number of challenges in successfully and profitably running an elevator, starting just with safety and technology and you quickly come to the conclusion that a space elevator is either impossible or will take hundreds of years to develop.

      Frankly I think we’ll have cheap control over gravity first, but I’ve been wrong before.

      Yes, Drake, humans want to explore space and should do so, but it’s incredibly expensive and the return is basically zero. I cannot fault FM for feeling like it is a boondoggle.

      1. Pluto,

        Thanks for the explanation! A broader perspective helps see things better.

        I agree with your analysis is a space elevator. These kinds of articles tend to ignore the time required to develop new technologies and build the necessary infrastructure. For a space elevator that probably means generations.

        In 1945 humanity had a functioning rocket ship — the V-2. With a massive and largely irrational effort, we took that tech to the moon in a quarter-century (~one generation).

        Today we lack many of the technologies needed to build a space elevator. For some — radically cheaper surface-to-orbit lift systems — we are not even working on them.

        There has been chatter about building solar power stations, a more plausible comparison to space in 1945. A radical rise in energy costs might spark interest in it. Possible causes: strong global commitment to de-carbonization of energy production, or a sudden arrival of peak oil (e.g., Ghawir’s production starting the 10% plus decline rate typical of fields using tertiary production methods).

    4. I’ve done the math on Solar Power Satellites and generally like the idea. Especially if we can build the things on the moon. There are the usual questions about safely beaming the power back to Earth but this idea merits further study someday.

      The sad thing from my perspective and Drake’s is that while Solar Power Stations would require human maintenance, the head count in orbit would have to be quite small (under 100 for even the biggest plans) to keep the whole venture profitable.

      1. Pluto,

        The bottom line on orbital solar power stations: not going to happen in any foreseeable time. For details see the 2001 National Research Council evaluation (translated from bureaucratic glob: go really really slowly). See other references here (most are advocacy, similar to the articles about manned space in the 1950s that look delusional today).

        The “Silver Moon”, spaceship of the Space Rangers commanded by Rocky Jones:
        [caption id="attachment_75536" align="aligncenter" width="334"]Silver Moon, the XV-3 Silver Moon, the XV-3[/caption]

    5. I think this FM post brings up excellent points about the space program that some readers are misinterpreting (as I myself almost did and perhaps still am).

      And, though I know what I am about to say will probably earn me a severe trashing by some one I am going to say it any way(perhaps I’m a masochist).

      We have as a species allowed are steps toward technological advancement so balloon our ego’s that we fail to see that all we have really done is taken steps TOWARD technological advancement.
      We some years back discovered we could fill a tin can with flammable fluid…ignite it…control the explosions and in so doing place a man on the moon. Scientists have already proven this as an extremely inefficient means to get around in outer space. Yet…we are still patting ourselves on the back for having pulled this rather absurd stunt.

      If we compare our accomplishments to those of dogs, chimpanzees or dolphins they do seem impressive. Compare them to what science tells us will be necessary to achieve successful space programs…not so impressive.

      So I think rather you agree with space exploration or not this post at least everyone should agree with. As I read it spend money on the development of technologies here on earth and when we have achieved a much higher level of technological advancement…then apply those new technologies to a space exploration program that will actually be able to get us some where.
      Because walking on the moon was a small step for man and was a giant leap for mankind…so long as our only competition is dogs, chimpanzees and dolphins.

  2. I disagree a lot!

    Not that unmanned space flight is more cost-effective than manned space flight — Given a particular set of research or tech development goals, that is perfectly true.

    It also misses the point, in my opinion. The point of manned space flight is to go there. That’s it. Why does it need more justification than for other activities without a material benefit — art, literature, entertainment, climbing the highest mountain just because it’s there.

    The point of using government funding specifically for the loftiest, most extravagant version:
    (1) it’s so expensive that it wouldn’t get done otherwise.
    (2) during the cold war it was a matter of national pride, or a show of wealth, like a national luxury, or of machismo, or something along those lines. I hear China’s doing it now.
    (3) it’s an excuse to train (and inspire!) engineers, scientists, and manufacturing industry — develop capacity to develop other things.
    (4) demonstrates that government is capable of doing something non-destructive!

    For some more comparisons, US also annually spends (please pardon the hasty lookups!):

    $10 billion, on going to the movies (

    $18 billion on NASA

    $30 billion on Dept. of Energy (

    $60 billion, collectively, on alcoholic drinks ( and I don’t think this counts what is actually paid by customers when they buy drinks at restaurants and bars!

    $500 billion +++ on Dept. of Defense ( a good part of it questionable in value.


    Also, a lot of the idea that NASA is wasteful comes from the space shuttle program, which, pound for pound, under-performed Apollo despite having 10-20 more years of technology at its disposal.

    $1.5 billion estimated all-in cost per Space Shuttle launch, 1981-2011. 135 missions. can take 53,000 lb to low earth orbit.

    $3.3 billion inflation adjusted all-in cost per Saturn V launch, 15 built 1964-1973, total multi-year cost $47B (inflation adjusted). can take 260,000 lb to low earth orbit, (or 107,000 lb to moon). (

    ~$100-200 million all-in cost per launch ????? Soyuz rocket. 1966 – present. 1700 built/used. can take 15,000 lb to low earth orbit.
    ( )

    1. Pete,

      I disagree on all points.

      “The point of manned space flight is to go there.”
      There are lots of things small groups of people want to do. That doesn’t mean the government’s power to tax and spend should be deployed to do.

      “during the cold war it was a matter of national pride”
      Yes. But as many said at the time that was folly. What powered NASA as well as the similar high-tech extravagant (eventually cancelled) DoD projects were the corporations who got the money. I’m astonished that people don’t see this, even today — as we see the process endless repeated with projects like Constellation and the F-35.

      The other reasons you give are absurd. We could justify a thousand bizarre programs by saying “it wouldn’t get done otherwise” and “it would inspire”.

      “$10 billion, on going to the movies … $60 billion, collectively, on alcoholic drinks”
      So you think all my money is yours, to have the government spend on projects you like? No wonder the Republicans are winning. That’s insane.

      “$30 billion on Dept. of Energy”
      What’s the point of that comparison? The DoE provides a wide range of important functions.

      ” a lot of the idea that NASA is wasteful ”
      You’re just making stuff up. NASA is legendarily wasteful, as has been shown in hundreds of reports, studies, and histories of NASA. But that’s not the point here. The question is not NASA, but manned vs unmanned space programs — and the results (not the efficiency of the program).

      Your cost comparisons miss the point. The question is not the cost of putting people in orbit, but the value of doing so.

    2. “$60 billion, collectively, on alcoholic drinks”
      I’d like to see a massive government spending program to help me buy drinks at the bar…

      1. Todd,

        Great idea! But the do-gooders who tend to seize control of government projects tend to either regulate your drinking OR take your drinking money to spend on something else — all for your own good, of course.

        Government is a powerful instrument. But the Founders warned that it was an instrument for good only when wielded by a rational people, jealous of their liberties and interested in the welfare of future generations (hence the property requirement for voting, as they believed only men of property would concern themselves with the fate of future generations).

    3. Todd, the drinks and movies were not government funded, sorry!


      The dollar amounts I threw out there were for a sense of scale, to show that manned space flight is something that our society can afford on a national level.

      “That doesn’t mean the government’s power to tax and spend should be deployed to do.” — that’s a completely legit criticism. Depends on whether space exploration for its own sake is a worthwhile achievement. I think it is. Also might want to ask where space exploration lies on the spectrum of good vs bad ways to spend other people’s money, as you point out.

      Could I think of ways to spend money that are even better than space exploration? Sure. (like, oh i don’t know, scholarships to train more doctors and nurses, or better public transportation).

      But I’d much rather see a fanciful trip to explore another planet, than a fanciful weapons system, like the F-35 which is a perfect example.

      1. Pete,

        You are missing the point. There are an almost infinite number of projects the government can “afford” to fund. Including preparation of the many shockwaves — low probability, high impact scenarios (each with their corps of advocates for vast funding, wetting their pants in fear yet blind to the other equally horrific scenarios).

        But we cannot fund them *all*. So the question is not “shall we fund “x”, since the cost is a small fraction of GDP”, but how much shall we spend on such projects in total — and how should we allocate these funds.

        I have gone thru this simple logic hundreds of times on the FM website in these kind of discussions, as have so many people elsewhere. It seems many Americans are unable to see this, for reasons mysterious to me.

    4. “Depends on whether space exploration for its own sake is a worthwhile achievement.”

      What FM specifically takes issue with is _manned_ space exploration, which has proven costly, pointless, and scientifically of marginal value at best.

      1. Guest,

        That’s an important point!

        Satellites have proven to be fantastic investments — military surveilance, weather, communication, gps, and for many of the sciences.

        Unmanned probes allow exploration at a reasonable cost, appropriate for its modest gains.

    5. Pluto,

      Good job with the PTB. I actually didn’t know there was a Peteybee / Petaybee series. Guess it’s going to be the fluffy shelf, next time i’m at a bookstore!

    6. FM, guest,

      I get that. How pointless it is, both manned and unmanned, both earth orbit and beyond, is relative to the cost. For the cost, I don’t think manned space flight is pointless. Call it a non-material benefit to all people, if you have to account for it formally. Value of $330 per person. How’s that?

      1. Pete,

        The world is filled with people who think their enthusiasm is of great benefit and should be supported by all. Artists, space enthusiasts, people who fear the many shockwaves — everybody clamors to have the rest of us chip in for their wonderful hobby.

        You have not even bothered to explain why your thrill is superior to all the other possible ways to spend the money — for immediate needs, future needs, preventative measures (from shockwaves to mundane like rising seas), and the many many spiritual quests.

        Why is that?

    7. “For the cost, I don’t think manned space flight is pointless.”

      Let us put it simply: unmanned exploration achieves more and better results than manned ones.

      1) We have sent people just as far as the moon; the Voyager probes are currently leaving the solar system (while continuing to generate useful data).

      2) The longest a human being (a Russian in the Mir station) has spent in space did not even reach 15 months — and that was some 20 years ago; satellites routinely work for decades in space.

      3) Planets with such unforgiving environments as Venus have been explored (with the Soviet Venera probes), where conditions are so extreme that artificial satellites last at most a couple of hours (on the ground) to a few days (in altitude); we do not even know how to travel safely to Mars.

      Again: a variety of remote controlled rovers have been exploring Mars for 15 years and producing scientific knowledge. There is nothing more, better or newer that could be achieved with a manned flight, for a comparable cost, in any foreseeable future. That is why manned exploration is pointless.

  3. I like the idea of turning a manned trip to mars into a reality TV show. That old idea of astronauts as old naval fighter pilots with PHD’s. Boring! It needs to be replaced by astronauts with big knockers instead, looking for their first hookup before the spaceship leaves earth’s orbit.

    1. Dashui,

      That’s a great idea! But could any reality show do better than the countless sci-fi shows about space travel? I grew up watching “Rocky Jones: Space Ranger”. And his navigator, Vena Ray (Sally Manfield):

      [caption id="attachment_75524" align="aligncenter" width="500"]Sally Mansfield as Vena Ray in "Rocky Jones: Space Ranger" Sally Mansfield as Vena Ray in “Rocky Jones: Space Ranger”[/caption]

  4. I have a few things to say about this:
    1. There is something to be said about setting a difficult goal and accomplishing it, even if it’s not a particularly useful goal. Like running a marathon, we may not gain many tangible benefits, but we do gain a great deal in terms of spirit, and pride. On a national scale, there still exists spirit and pride, but we also gain infrastrucutre, both physical and human capital, which might afterwards be put toward a more productive pursuit.
    I think JFK said it best:
    “Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? … not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills”

    2. Fabius Maximus is completely right, that the ROI for the space program is essentially nothing. If the United States were a person filing taxes, the IRS would call the Space Program a hobby, and not allow the business expense deduction.

    3. I blame Hollywood for the original and persistent drive to reach for the stars. Countless movies show space as an exciting and fascinating place, where travel times are always shorter than your attention span, where exotic planets full of colorful plants and animals, sexy space women, and *gasp* breathable air, are just a short spaceship ride away. It’s no wonder so many people want to find these places.

    1. Todd,

      I don’t understand the “lets burn money digging holes and filling them in” thinking, when there are so many existential threats requiring R&D. It seems quite mad.

      (3) Hollywood and the space program

      I recommend reading The Return of William Proxmire by Larry Niven (1989), written as a memorial for Robert Heinlein. See the Wikipedia summary (it doesn’t grasp the key point: curing Heinlein allowed him to stay in the Navy, eventually taking control of the space program, and bringing it to fantastic success).

    2. Editor

      “I don’t understand the “lets burn money digging holes and filling them in” thinking, when there are so many existential threats requiring R&D. It seems quite mad.”
      Absolutely correct, but such thinking should come after deciding that it is better to put people to work, no matter how meaningless (digging and filling holes) then to let them without wages and letting them loose skills by allowing unemployment.

      Once government decides that have to put unemployed people to work, then the question of what kind of work should be people used for. Then R&D on existential threats is surelly better, much much better then digging and filling holes.
      But we have the problem of making the government employ people as first step, employ on what is the second step. And it seems that we can not break the ideology that keeps us from taking the first step; “Government is out of money”, “Government is waste” and so on.

      1. Jordan,

        I agree. When Keynes spoke of burying money for people to dig up in his great work The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (1936), and Nobel-laureate Milton Friedman recommended dropping money from helicopters, as described by in The Optimum Quantity of Money (1969) — these were metaphors, illustrating the point by mad extremes. In fact there are always unmet critical needs — helping people now, preparing the next generation, infrastructure, and R&D. There’s no need for wasteful pursuits like manned space. It’s the path in the opposite direction to national greatness.

        We’re sold dreams by con men seeking to boost their corporate profits.

    3. Jordan
      What I think you’re saying, is that sometimes it’s better to dig holes and fill them in, than to just sit on the couch all day watching Maury Povich. Maybe that’s debatable. I guess it was the thinking behind some of the New Deal programs in the 1930’s.

      1. Todd,

        “I guess it was the thinking behind some of the New Deal programs in the 1930’s.”

        Please gives some specifics of such wasteful projects in the 1930s. In fact the New Deal projects were for projects that made America a better nation. Flood control and forestry. Art, much of which is considered great today. Recording oral history, now filling in gaps in our knowledge of who we are. And wonderful parks and trails across America. With so many projects inevitably some were failures or ill-conceived; but remarkably few.

    4. “we also gain infrastrucutre, both physical and human capital, which might afterwards be put toward a more productive pursuit.”

      Why go in such a roundabout way, also ensuring that the infrastructure built will be only partially useful for different utilizations afterwards?

  5. The whole post would have no meaning, questioning ROI only in nominal terms, if people realize that there is no limit to government spending, which is in nominal terms.
    Government spending is limited only by accepting the budget by Congress. Finances to fund the budget are no issues in fiat money world.

    “What if we had spent it on some other form of research?” Why didn’t we, is the question for Congress that decided so. But it is not because of funding for it. There is no problem to spend for space research and other forms of research at the same time. The problem is to make the Congress decides so in next budget.

    If the only question considered is ROI, then we all should invest only in stock market which shows the best return. We do not have to build or replace nothing real, because stocks will give us the best ROI (especially if all money is put there, imagine prices skyrocket into space instead of people).

    1. “If the only question considered is ROI, then we all should invest only in stock market which shows the best return.”
      The government investing directly in the stock market?
      I think this actually happens in some countries, usually with not good results.

      1. Todd,

        Re: central banks buying stocks — “I think this actually happens in some countries, usually with not good results”

        This has become quite common since the 2008 crash (see this Bloomberg article). I am not aware of any with “not good results”, although its too soon to draw conclusions.

        Japan’s government has been buying stocks for many years. Too soon to assess the results. Hong Kong’s Central Bank bought stocks during the 1989 panic, with excellent results.

  6. I mean in my opinion life is the real waste of money. Imagine how much we would save if we were dead! But those dang liberals and conservatives would probably hate that. But what if we went back to the dark ages! You know sending all our money to the Catholics in rome, we could go back to blindly following religion until we die! those were truly the golden years. But we are making progress, i mean recently we spent more on air conditioning in iraq than our space program. BUT honestly though if i had a time machine i would have killed the first people to travel to the Americas, I MEAN what a waste of money that was, stupid explorers trying to expand the grand achievements of man to feed our passion and leave behind a legacy that greatly exceeds all wealth and physical possession. What idiots right?

  7. FM remarks: There are a host of useful technologies that are starved for funding. There are a dozen or more laboratory projects to build next-gen fusion power sources (e.g., the Polywell). They get pocket lint for funding (the Polywell gots a million or so per year from the Navy, and is looking for new sources). The $5 – $10 billion/year that NASA has spent for decades could have funded a massive R&D “seed” project in the quarter-century since the moon landing, probably producing a few hits by now.

    To expand on what FM said, let’s take a brief look at 5 different well-defined and practical earthbound projects that would surely pay vast dividends if we spent NASA-level funds on them — but which simply haven’t gotten any funding because they’re not glitzy enough.

    [1] The vactrain system, first proposed in 1972 by RAND engineers. With evacuated tunnels and electromagnetic propulsion (perhaps powered by nuclear reactors, or perhaps powered by solar arrays, either solar-voltain or solar-thermal), a practical vactrain system would exponentially increase commerce throughout the United States, slashing costs and increasing economic opportunities everywhere. While the first proposed vactrains run along either coast, there’s no practical reason why they couldn’t be extended in a network throughout the United States. Parallels systems of cargo and passenger transport would end American dependence on the automobile and foreign oil, simultaneously enormously cheapening the cost of shipping goods within the U.S.

    [2] Nuclear fusion. Very little money has been spent on this promising technology, yet it contains to achieve slow and steady milestones. A large-scale project would undoubtedly greatly accelerate progress.

    [3] Thorium breeder reactors. These nuclear reactors create their own fuel. Sounds outlandish, but it’s theoretically sound — and thorium remains one of the most common elements in the earth’s crust, much easier to mine and refine than uranium. The only problems with developing a practical efficient thorium breeder reactor involve engineering details. Simply put, no one agency has invested a large enough amount of money to get pilot projects and working scaled-up engineer prototypes that would shake out any potential bugs.

    [4] An immensely improved passenger rail system in the U.S. Our cargo rail system is already excellent, but our passenger trains are a disgrace. The main problem here involves the rotten condition of the tracks. That’s because we use the same tracks for both passenger and cargo trains. Building out a new high-tech rail system for passenger use only would reap enormous benefits for America, last benefits that would have big knock-of effects both economically and technologically.

    [5] Driverless cars. Google’s problem with the driverless car is that this is a great technology that won’t work optimally until it’s deployed everywhere. One individual, given a choice twixt spending 30K for a slow car that s/he can’t control or a fast that s/he can will obviously choose the non-self-driving car. But if some large entity (like, say, the U.S. government) were to build and deploy a nationwide network of self-driving cars the benefits would be huge. Potential elimination of traffic jams, the elimination of the need for individual car ownership, immense increases in delivery efficiencies of goods, reduction of traffic fatalities, enormous improvements in efficiency of passenger travel per mile of fuel consumed, would all follow. But driverless cars offer a good example of a system that’s not optimal for deployment by private enterprise. Like the canal systems of the 19th century, a major public investment is required before the fantastic benefits of this kind of advance will be enjoyed by the general public.

    Frankly, we could spend the dollars we currently waste on manned space flight or the ISS much better on many known well-researched engineering projects that are currently crying out for funding. The only reason these projects aren’t getting funded is that they’re not technologically sexy. But canals weren’t technogically sexy in the 19th century and yet they were largely responsible for the explosive economic development America enjoyed throughout the early to mid-19th century.

    1. “Nuclear fusion. Very little money has been spent on this promising technology”

      Very little money? Vast sums have been poured into nuclear fusion since the 1950s, always with the promise that a feasible solution was about 50 years away.

      The comparison with nuclear fission is sobering: it was possible to go from A-bombs to commercial power plants in just a couple of decades; H-bombs have existed for a very long time, but not even a prototype fusion power plant is available. From what I have read, a major problem is scaling — one must put enormous amounts of energy to start the reaction, and be able to maintain it long enough so that fusion becomes self-sustaining. But those reactions are so damn unstable that scaling has eluded the best techno-scientific attempts.

      It looks as if nuclear fusion has basically degenerated into a job security program for high-energy physicists.

      1. guest and Thomas,

        See the CRS report cited about energy expenditures. That includes fusion. Fusion has been well-funded — but only a small number of large projects, chiefly the ITER (Latin for “The Way”, the tomack project) and the National Ignition Facility (lasers).
        These have been well-funded since the 1970s.

        All other promising avenues — such as the Polywell — have been starved. Unfortunately the two big bets DOE made have proven to be bad bets.

    2. Re: thorium reactors —
      They are also inherently less prone to catastrophic failure than uranium reactors. So it would be a win for nuclear safety.

    3. Responding to Thomas’ comments:

      1) The big unknown with vactrains is the cost of operation and maintenance. They could be quite large but it is still an idea worth pursuing.

      3) Although I understand why making more radioactive fuel is valuable, I get the heebee geebees when I think about how much additional contamination that could cause if we start using more nuclear reactors and get overconfident. The mess in Japan and Chernobyl are more than enough for me already.

      4) “An immensely improved passenger rail system in the U.S. Our cargo rail system is already excellent, but our passenger trains are a disgrace.” You are too kind to both the cargo and passenger rail systems. American rail is very profitable (ask Warren Buffet) and mostly gets the job done for cargo (if you are willing to wait long enough) but the level of service ranges from bad to unbelievably bad.

      5) If given a choice between spending 30k on a slow driverless car, preferably with a hybrid engine, and a fast car that requires a driver, I would buy the slow driverless car as an ONLY vehicle and rent a fast vehicle when I need to go more than 30 miles. This would not be practical for families that need to routinely drive more than 30 miles to their destinations.

      The benefits of driverless cars to smaller families in major metro areas is remarkable as long as you are willing to wait a bit. Imagine a scenario with a working couple and an elementary school child.
      1) Adult A takes the car to work but it drops him off and goes home. Then it picks up Adult B and drops her off as well before going home and parking itself. Both companies need vastly less land for parking lots. This trick works for shopping malls as well.
      2) Child gets picked up by the car after school and is driven to daycare
      3) Car picks up both parents and the child using the most time and fuel-efficient route.
      The only scenario where the car doesn’t work for the family is if multiple people need to be in very different places at the same time. And even then they can have the vehicle drop one person off with plenty of time.

      A big problem with major sporting events is bringing the people together and taking them back home again. This adds to the mass transit solution with relatively little pain.

      Also I think you are underestimating what Google can do, Britain has decided to make driverless cars legal throughout the entire country starting this year.

      Studies indicate that driverless cars will reduce the number of vehicles on the road during rush hour by 33-66% (I love the higher number but it requires a high level of carpooling), this would vastly reduce the frustrations of commuting to work and the cost of building new roads. People would have more safe options for entertaining themselves (including sleeping) and would arrive at work less frustrated. Workaholics could safely get quite a lot done on their laptops while driving into work. Drunk driving would literally be a thing of the past.

      The number of accidents would drop a great deal. So far in testing the vehicles in California and Nevada, there have only been 3 accidents over 1 million miles driven. All three were determined to be the fault of the driver of the other vehicle instead of the car’s software.

      The two primary stumbling blocks allowing driverless vehicles in the US are:
      1. The vehicles have a limited range of places they can safely go because of software and mapping constraints. This issue is expected to fall away fairly rapidly
      2. The insurance companies and the law enforcement people are very uncomfortable with
      setting the appropriate framework around these vehicles. If two driverless vehicles were to get into an accident (which is inevitable), who is to blame? Not the occupants of the vehicle, the company that made the car? The software company? Also, who can you sue and/or arrest for negligence?

      Taxi companies are, understandably, fearful of the potential changes but I think they should embrace the opportunity to lower their costs instead. Taxi cab drivers and truck drivers are also very fearful and resistant, which is quite reasonable.

      I am very hopeful that California and Nevada will legalize these vehicles in their borders in the next 5 years and that the rest of the country follows suit in the next 15 years. Within 20 years driving controls might be removed from all vehicles.

  8. Pingback: [offtopic for this blog] re: space flight, discussion on FM website | Spread An Idea

  9. Several comments.

    1) Almost all of the information about the universe beyond the solar system has come from ground-based and LEO-based observatories.

    2) The issue of life on Mars will be settled long before manned flights take place. What will the astronauts DO?

    In short, the manned space program has been vastly cost ineffective.

  10. To piggyback on Pluto’s remarks, I think the takeaway here is that we can quibble about details, but overall it seems undeniable that FM is right in terms of the big picture. Whichever specific project your prefer, whether thorium reactors or driverless cars or vactrains or whatever, the fact remains that there are just plenty of well-defined thoroughly researched very promising large-scale engineering projects waiting for funding that would pay huge social and economic benefits if we funded them.

    By contrast, the social and economic benefits we get from manned space exploration are approximately zero, as FM has pointed out.

    One of the most bizarre aspects of the early 21st century is the way Americans eagerly embrace wildly outlandish large-scale projects that insane amounts of money, while dismissing down-to-earth straightforward practical projects as “ridiculous” and “unrealistic” and “something out of a fantasy world.”

    Early 21st century Americans seem to think it makes good solid sense to burn through upwards of one trillion dollars on crazy projects like invading the middle east in order to turn those medieval societies into Americanized democratic havens of free-market liberalism, or to pass away a trillion bucks per year on fitting out our aircraft carriers with laser beam death rays and Buck Rogers rail guns so we can win another Battle of Midway with the Martians if the Martians ever invade earth… But if you suggest to those same 21st century American spending a sum comparable to the Iraq war on (say) improving America’s rail system, the response you get is “that’s just ridiculous, it’s pie in the sky” and “we couldn’t possibly do that, it’s completely unrealistic!”

    Just weird.

  11. Socialbill asks: “What will the astronauts DO?” when they arrive on Mars.

    Unfortunately, we know enough about the physics and biology of space travel to answer that. Mars has almost no magnetic field, so there’s nothing to channel the high-energy galactic cosmic rays toward the poles. That means that if the astronauts stay on the surface of Mars they’ll be subjected to incredible amounts of high-radiation CGRs, enough to kill them of cancer within a few months.

    So any astronauts we send to Mars will have to spend most of their time hunkered down in underground bunkers built beneath the regolith, with enough dirt and rock overhead to provide adequate shielding.

    See this article about the health issues from GCRs in space travel or in unshielded environments like the lunar or Martian surface.

    I take it as read that no one is seriously discussing sending astronauts to Venus, what with the surface temperature hotter than boiling lead, surface atmospheric pressure of 92 atmosphere, and an atmosphere mostly made of broiling carbon dioxide with sulfuric acid rain for fun.

    Other than Mars and Venus, what else is there? Mercury? It’s just not realistic.

    1. Thomas,

      I have a different perspective on this. The difficulties of exploring Mars and Venus are no greater than those we have met in the past (relative to the technology of the time). THe cost was high in lives of exploring the Americas, and then Africa, and then the poles. But men were found to do it.

      The barrier is the cost. It will not be done until there is sufficient reason to justify the cost. Perhaps new tech will reduce the cost vs GDP of that time, or new reasons will justify even great cost. One or another will happen, eventually.

  12. Space is the final frontier! Yes, we will eventually be able to explore all the oceans, and conquer most of the diseases, and find solutions to war and poverty too leaving the exploration of the universe as the final goal! And soon (in just a few billion years) the human race will have to evacuate the Earth before the Sun dies out but first expanding beyond the orbit of Earth. We will expand the Internet into the stars first with unmanned probes followed by populations of generation space ships! Dream the undoable and it may happen!!

  13. johnchapmanauthor

    Millions of years ago a large asteroid hit the earth and wiped out the dinosaurs. Billions of years ago an even larger impact liquefied the earth’s crust and created the moon. Both types of impact will happen again. It’s extreamly unlikely that a Bruce Willis style mission could be mounted in time to destroy or deflect a dinosaur killer and we have no chance of preventing a moon creator impact.

    Humanity might survive a dinosaur killer impact but may well be thrown back to a stone age civilisation. Our only chance of surviving a moon creator impact is to not be in the solar system when it happens. After all a moon creator impact on Venus will probably create enough debris to bombard earth with dinosaur killers.
    Whatever the cost of space missions we have to do them. Waiting until we see the danger will be too late. Far better to spend the money as a collective venture to spread earth’s lifeforms throughout the galaxy. We can’t start on this too soon.

    1. John,

      There are many many shockwaves, of which asteroid or comet impact is only one. How to deal with them is challenge requiring careful thought, since we can go broke working to prevent or mitigate them all. See all posts about them here. Especially see these posts:

      1. We are so vulnerable to so many things. What is the best response?
      2. Preparing for the future: should we be precautionary or proactionary?

      “It’s extreamly unlikely that a Bruce Willis style mission could be mounted in time to destroy or deflect a dinosaur killer and we have no chance of preventing a moon creator impact.”

      That’s a smaller than infinitesimal probability. An Earth-crossing asteroid or comet might hit the Earth every 100 thousand years (the odds are still debated). But large or small, we can defend the Earth with a project Spaceguard infrastructure. It’s remotely feasible with our technology, and will become more affordable over time during the next few centuries

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