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Friday, August 12, 2005


Since Professors of Mathematics impress me in a way which Prime Ministers, economic experts & Popes decidedly do not I was pleased to see Professor Levitt's letter here on Spiked. My letter was put up first though it is scrolled at the bottom, as with most blogs.

Henry Joy McCracken's article makes several interesting points, concerning NASA's manned space programme, but blurs the most important one - since its inception, the shuttle programme has been an extravagant, useless waste of time, resources, technological talent and human lives (Retreating from the final frontier, 3 August).

The same may be said, of course, of the International Space Station. Neither project has any serious value - scientific, economic, or military. They are both, to use the splendidly apt Americanism, boondoggles of the first order. They exist, not in spite of being wasteful, but precisely because they are wasteful. That is to say, they provide a convenient rationale for NASA's enormous bureaucracy, its huge budget, and the generous contracts it allots to its favoured partners in business and industry. The Shuttle programme, with its monopoloisation of the function of putting big payloads in orbit, was tantamount to buying a custom Rolls Royce and hiring a chauffeur in order to haul a few bails of hay from time to time. Or perhaps it might be compared to building a luxury cruise ship and providing it with a full crew and staff, in order to tow a few barges.

The presence of astronauts is superfluous. To the extent that they're needed to assist payload delivery, that's merely because the delivery system was awkwardly built around the limitations of the shuttle, rather than around a more appropriate unmanned booster. As to scientific research carried out by the astronauts, it's safe to say that there has been none of an importance commensurate with the cost. Moreover, whatever results have been achieved could have been achieved faster, more cheaply, and more thoroughly by an appropriate unmanned mission. When we talk about scientific work by the astronauts, we're talking about busywork specifically contrived to cover those people with the illusion of usefulness. It may be that a manned mission to Mars is desirable and important. Conceding this for the sake of argument, neither the shuttle nor the existing space station has anything to contribute to that goal. It must be achieved from scratch.

Norman Levitt, professor of mathematics, Rutgers University, USA

The practical purpose of the NASA organisation is to keep its annual budget of over $10billion (Dragging Discovery down to Earth, 10 August; Retreating from the final frontier, 3 August).

Anything else, such as doing stuff in space, is a bonus. This is a common fault of bureaucracies everywhere. If half of NASA's money had instead been given to fund X-Prizes, we'd certainly have developed low cost-to-orbit craft (the energy cost of going to orbit is the same as flying to Australia), bases on the Moon, industries on the asteroid belt, and would be at least preparing to land on Pluto by now.

Neil Craig, A Place to Stand, UK

Actually I was wrong - the budget was $10 billion back when they were doing nearly 4 shuttles a year - it is now $35.
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