Wednesday, March 23, 2005

What about Bob?

I've been a member of the Mars Society for about 4 years now. I've usually been proud of my membership. The Society is the only space advocacy society I know of that relies so heavily on its volunteer members to do its work. The Society doesn't just want dues from its members in exchange for a magazine. In fact, there is no magazine. Instead, in exchange for paying dues members have the opportunity to participate in the Society's work, including its analog research program. That program conducts research at two simulated Mars bases in Utah and the Arctic Circle. Volunteer crews live and work at these bases as if they were on Mars and participate in an ongoing scientific research program. The Society has gotten some good publicity out of the program that has drawn international attention to the goal of sending humans to Mars. The Society's plans, drawn up by its president and founder Robert Zubrin, have become the model for human missions to Mars. These accomplishments have made me proud to be a member.

Yet in the last year or so the Society's resources have been diverted to a task not part of its mission, saving the Hubble space telescope. I don't agree that saving the Hubble is part of the Mars Society's mission in any way. But what I find most disagreeable are the tactics of personal destruction aimed at former NASA Director Sean O'Keefe that are being employed by the Society. Those tactics are an embarrassment. The latest embarrassing salvo was launched in the Society's email newsletter last week. (A version of the newsletter was also published by spacedaily as an article.)

In the newsletter O'Keefe's decision to spend $300 million to de-orbit the Hubble is described this way:
"This proposal is remarkable for its irrationality. NASA calculates that if Hubble were to re-enter without direction, there is a 1/10,000 chance that the resulting debris would strike someone. That works out to a probability of one life saved per $3 trillion spent. If life-saving is the mission, $300 million could do a lot more good spent on tsunami relief, body armor for the troops, highway safety barriers, childhood vaccinations, swimming lessons, take your pick.

Humanitarian and scientific budgets cannot be directly compared, because they serve different objectives. However the proposed Hubble deorbit budget is NOT a scientific expense; its purpose is to save lives, and thus it must be considered a humanitarian
expense, and judged accordingly. A reasonable estimate is that one life is saved for every $3,000 spent on Tsunami relief. At that rate, the decision to waste $300 million in potentially useful humanitarian funds on deorbiting Hubble amounts to the willful killing of roughly 100,000 people – mostly children. It is irresponsible, irrational, and immoral in the extreme."

Actually, what is irresponsible and irrational is to make wild charges that it amounts to the mass murder of 100,000 people to spend money to safely return a large piece of space debris to Earth without harming anyone.

But what is even more problematic with the newsletter is the advice given to Mars Society members. Here's the recommendation:
"Americans committed to a sane, moral, and courageous space policy need to mobilize now to save Hubble. Everyone should call their own Senators and Congressional representatives, ask to speak to their legislative aides, and demand that the SM4 mission to save and upgrade Hubble be reinstated, and that not a penny of the taxpayers' money be spent on the immoral Hubble de-orbit mission.

If NASA has funds available for humanitarian purposes, those funds should be spent to save lives, not wasted to validate the capricious decisions of a Philistine careerist bureaucrat who has since moved on to greener pastures.

Given the decision to maintain the Shuttle flying in a given year, the incremental cost of flying an additional Shuttle mission such as SM4 is only about $100 million. Instead of stupidly and heartlessly wasting $300 million to destroy Hubble, we should
use $100 million to save and upgrade this gem of science and civilization, and spend the other $200 million to save the lives of tens of thousands of destitute children far more worthy of our charity than the Hubble deorbit program. Call congress and tell them so!"

It's counterproductve to the cause of the Mars Society and the manned space program to have Society members call their representatives and tell them the $300 million that was proposed to de-orbit the Hubble would be better spent on Earth saving lives and that Congress should adopt a fall back position that spends $100 million to save the Hubble but takes $200 million (presumably from NASA) and spends it on Earthbound charity.

I know from my own experience of public speaking on the importance of funding the manned space program that inevitably somebody will respond that we should be spending money here on Earth instead. Yet now members of the Mars Society are being asked to call their congressional representatives and tell them to do just that.

I don't care if Hubble is saved or not. I think a good argument can be made that it's time to replace the scope rather than fix it. Consequently I think the Mars Society should not involve itself in a crusade to save the Hubble. The mission of the Society is to promote human exploration of Mars. Saving the Hubble is not part of that mission.

But if saving the Hubble is going to be a part of the Mars Society's mission, it should at least do it in a way that brings credit to the Society rather than shame. It should do it without hyperbolic rhetoric and personal attacks and without adopting the arguments made by opponents of manned space programs.

A reasonable argument to save the Hubble should be limited to stating how much science Hubble has produced, how popular the scope is, how much cheaper fixing it would be than de-orbiting it or launching a new scope, how much more of a useful life we could get out of it with a simple fix, and how we've done it before so we can do it again. If that argument succeeds, great. If the argument fails, it's not the end of the Mars Society or of the manned space program. The goal of saving the Hubble is not so closely tied to the Mars Society's mission that it justifies pulling out all of the rhetorical stops.



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