In the annals of self-delusion, NASA’s Moon-Mars mission ranks right at the top. Today’s NY Times, for example, carries details about NASA’s plans for a moon base to be built sometime around 2020.
Let me be clear. There is a 0 percent chance that this Moon base or anything like it will ever be built, for the following reason: the moon missions in the ’60s and early ’70s cost something like $100 billion in today’s dollars. There is no way that setting up a semipermanent lunar base will be anything other than many times more expensive. That would put the total cost at one to a few trillion dollars.
NASA, however, is spending a few billion dollars each year on this — something like 1 percent of the money they would need to spend each year to actually accomplish this task, well short of the $100 billion or so actually required. Given this reality, there is no way we will ever actually do this.
So what’s the problem? After all, I’d rather see NASA waste the money than see it wasted somewhere else in the government. The problem is that NASA’s budget is, to a good approximation, a zero-sum game. The money for the Moon-Mars project is being taken out of useful and productive science programs — including robotic missions to other planets as well as research on our own planet.
As someone who gets much of his research funding from NASA, I have seen the dollars for climate research getting harder and harder to find over the last few years. Like the blob of the eponymous ’50s horror movie, the Moon-Mars mission is eating the budget of everything else at NASA.
Inevitably, the Moon-Mars project will be cast into the dustbin of history when some future administration notices the price tag. Before that happens, however, this project will end up killing all of the other research projects at NASA. That will be the real tragedy here.