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Next step in space

April 12, 2011

SpaceX, a private rocket and space flight company, is designing the second most powerful rocket in history. I talked on here before how disappointed I was when Obama (and congress) cut the Ares Rocket program which was supposed to be the replacement space flight rocket after the shuttle is retired. Nothing compares to the Saturn V rocket that was responsible for the impressive Apollo program, and SpaceX's new rocket is supposed to have about half the power. Meaning we'd need two, or two stages, to get to the moon again. But it's still better than anything we've got now, especially as our soon to be defunkt shuttle program is only a low orbital space program.
 
To Obama's credit, I guess we do see that private industry is developing and doing amazing things. But of course if we wanted to use these we'd actually have to buy them. SpaceX estimates they'll cost $80-$125 million for each launch. Angry commenters on the NPR article ask what good is it to spend $125 million when we're cutting money on education and social programs every day. And I agree, it's frustrating. I don't think we should educate kids any less just to go to space. But maybe we need to put this $125 million into perspective.
 
Currently each shuttle launch costs us $1.3 billion. That's including total equipment cost, subcontractors, and support. So that $125 million mentioned above would have to be rolled into a larger number to include a lander, training, ground support, electronics payloads, etc. I've also talked about the alternate engine for the F-35 joint strike fighter in the past. The alternate engine, meaning the one that lost the initial development contract, made by GE has continued to be funded by congress at a total cost since 1997 of $2.5 billion. That's for an engine we haven't actually bought any of and probably will never be able to use or buy. That is pure development dollars for GE. Funding was cut off earlier this year and it was estimated $900 million to complete the F136 development engine. That's right, before we could even buy any.
 
The estimated total cost of the Iraq war up to 2010 has been estimated to be $704 billion. Combining that with the war in Afghanistan it's expected to cost $2.4 trillion by 2017. One week into our "no fly zone" in Libya we were up to $550 million in additional costs to the department of defense for that effort.
 
Don't get me wrong, I am pro-defense spending. But like Secretary Gates I'm for smart spending. Spending that supports our troops and develops new and uesful technologies when we need them, and holds defense companies accountable for cost and timetables. But more importantly, this is not an either or situation. We don't have to gut defense or education in order to have a viable space flight program. We may have to stop giving people tax breaks on their second homes or stop taxing capital gains (interest earned) far less than we tax labor income. We may have to raise the edge of eligibility for social security or reduce benefits to those who have assets above a certain amount. But when you put the costs in perspective, especially when you compare it to a few wars nobody really likes, I think it's worth it.
 
I hope the US develops an earnest interest in science and technology again. I hope, like the title of an excellent book, that we develop a passion for mars.
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