Monday, 19 April 2010

The Man Who Sold Out The Moon

How much was the now defunct effort to return to the Moon going to cost each American Taxpayer?

Try this calculator.
NASA has spent more than $9 billion on development of the Constellation project and the Ares rockets over the last six years. President Obama's fiscal 2011 budget would end funding for the Constellation Systems program, initiated by NASA in 2005 to return astronauts to the Moon by 2020 and later to Mars. The administration says the program is behind schedule and cannot achieve its goals without budget increases. Constellation would need an additional $3 billion annually beyond fiscal 2010.
Now Constellation needed mending with a new one. But now it's clear that to Obama, it's all about "US Pride" and "Showing the Flag". Prestige. Basically, one huge publicity stunt. Not about colonisation. Not about using our disabled twin planet as a testing ground for how to live off-Earth.

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

Zoe,

I recall, all too vividly, the DC-X program ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/DC-X ).. For those who're unfamiliar with it, it is a development craft for a single-stage-to-orbit (SSTO) rocket intended to ease of maintainence and rapid turn-around. One pair of flights occurred 26 hours apart.

Small. Simple. Relatively Cheap.

If they want to go to Mars, or anywhere else, they first need cheap and reliable transport to orbit.

Until they get there, all the Mars stuff is, as Col. Potter said, Horse Puckey.

Nicole Joy

Carolyn Ann said...

The calculation is wrong.

Proportionally, if you add up all the $9 billion chunks of budgeted spending - you'd end up with a lot more than 100% of "your" tax bill. There are about 391 $9B chunks in the Federal budget for 2009. There are 1,017 $3.5B chunks in the same budget. That doesn't compare to the 1/5,000th of my income Fox News says I contributed to this program.

I read the source code to this, and some of their other "budget calculator" pages. Nowhere do I see a calculation I can take apart and test in a spreadsheet. It's an opaque calculation. No one has any idea what is calculated, what weighting is given to this or that, what assumptions about interest rates, revenues, economic growth or even what the average percentage is!

From what I can gather they're using both forward and backward looking projections; why do I think the numbers are chosen to support their political "arguments"?

Fox News even admits that its calculations have a lot of (unknown) assumptions in them: "FOXNews.com is projecting the share of a program's cost for one individual in each specified adjusted gross income category. The projections are based on many assumptions with respect to future income groups, future tax burdens, future federal revenues by source, and other details. [My bold] The assumptions underlying these projections may be modified from time to time to reflect changed circumstances."

Besides being a "relative tax burden" (interesting choice of words, don't you think?), there's little to indicate what Fox News is actually calculating. If the calculations are "fair and balanced", how come they're not detailed?

In other words: its accuracy has to be doubted. Also, I can't help notice that the calculators, and their results, are very helpful in supporting the political arguments of Fox News.

Zimbel said...

Yes; I assumed that their calculator was nearly useless. If you want my estimation method, it would be to take the estimated cost of constellation, divide by the federal government's income, and multiply by the federal taxes I pay (which, particularly if you include indirect taxes, is non-trivial to calculate).

Or, far simpler, assume an equal tax burden (it's actually a pretty good first-order approximation, since, while income taxes are mildly progressive, most other federal taxes are regressive). I see a range of estimates here; I'll take 124,000,000,000$ as the one I'll look at. With roughly 308,000,000 people, we're looking at around $402.59 per person (over the life of the program).

To me, though, the question isn't how much it cost, it's how much Constellation is worth, particularly compared to other spending NASA could be doing. I suspect that this report may have a lot to do with why Obama wants to shut Constellation down. One thing that GAO report mentions is that Constellation was never fully funded, which had (by the time of that report) already caused a 6 month delay in first launch.

Honestly, my main problem with the more recent George Bush's space program was that he underfunded infrastructure. My main problem with Obama's new proposal is that it underfunds human spaceflight. I suspect either would be resolved nicely with a large increase to NASA's budget (and, yes, I know that in absolute terms, NASA's budget is the highest it's been since 1994).

The U.S.A.'s economy is far larger now; I see no particular reason why we couldn't fund NASA now to the same extent that we did in the mid-late 60s, in absolute terms.

Carolyn Ann said...

No enemy, Zimbel. That's why the American voter isn't interested. Well, that and a powerful group that has reticence to fund anything that might challenge their god.

Zoe, I just read an interesting sentence: "Numbers can't lie, but the people who create those numbers can and do so." The writer, Harry Markopolos (you might know that name from the Bernie Madoff scandals; he's the guy who figured out what Madoff was doing a long time ago), goes on to observe "As so many people have learned, forgetting to include human nature in an equation can be devastating." He's talking about things like the Black-Scholls model that was coming into vogue at the time I left Wall St. But I'm curious: why did you quote this obviously biased calculator? As Zimbel shows, its numbers don't even pass the "sniff test". (I'll admit I didn't even bother doing a sniff test; kudos to Zimbel for doing so!) I'm not buying, so to speak, your conclusive paragraph; it's full of negatives, and not about why think this program was needed. I'm sorry for my dimness, but I can't find a conclusion in a series of negative statements. Was it all a publicity stunt? Is it all about colonization? (Please excuse the differences in spelling!)

I also wonder how you can say "twin planet"? If it's a twin, it's a paternal twin! As a twin myself, I see nothing twin-like in the moon. I see a body that was, most likely, derived from the prototypical Earth. Which would not make it our twin, but our planetary offspring.

My apologies for nitpicking! The numbers thing isn't nitpicking, but the Moon stuff most assuredly is. :-)

Carolyn Ann

Anonymous said...

As someone who has worked in the space program for 30 years, I can tell you that COnstellation was nothing more than a publicity stunt for GW Bush and a lot of wishful thinking. While we can build rockets and space capsules, we have no idea how to keep people healthy in deep space, no idea how to handle truly insidious properties of lunar dust and most of all , no real economic reason to go to the Moon or Mars...ergo small budget when you would need maybe 100$B a year to have a chance. "Colonozation" as you call it is so far off its SciFi.. we couldnt get Biosphere 2 to work and our current climate issues show us how much we still dont know about planetary ecologies. Yes there are good solid economic reasons to go into deep space and some even to send people (thought not many) but such vision is still lacking...

Imogen said...

It always was about prestige and nothing more. I'll believe space will be colonized when Antarctica has thriving cities.

Antarctica is a paradise compared to space. I can't think of anything worse than being trapped in a tin can for the rest of my life.