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DM: One of These Days… To the MOON!

April 16, 2010
Before the end of the semester, I have to put up several entries on my Decision Modeling professor’s class blog that relate to the topic of the class: instances of the use of (or the need for the use of) decision modeling that we see in the world around us, in our own lives, or in the news.  Here is the next entry in that series:  
 
To the MOON!  Or to MARS!  Or an Asteroid!  Or maybe just the International Space Station, at least until it falls out of the sky! 
 
This morning [or yesterday morning, by the time my readers get to see this] I was reading about President Obama’s trip to Florida today, and his plan to announce a change of focus for NASA’s mission.  It’s a plan that’s been widely criticized by astronauts old and new, as well as by Space Enthusiasts (such as myself, I being a nerd; I don’t mean to be political in this blog, and have only done so once before, but Space Exploration is a sufficiently nerdy topic to warrant my posting something about it; besides which, this is meant to be a semi-humorous exploration of the topic).  Comedian and fellow space enthusiast Stephen Colbert summarized the criticism in a humorously witty remark as he commented on the shift in focus away from a new manned mission to the Moon or Mars and toward more robotic exploration missions:

Sending robots into space does not win glory for Americans.  It wins glory for Roombas.

In reading these two linked articles, it made me think about what are the objectives of the US Space Mission, and how those objectives, in retrospect, ought to have been considered before making a decision this significant.

First, we can say that deciding what NASA’s mission will be is hardly a trivial decision.  The implications for how NASA spends its time are immense, for the future of the country.  For one, the jobs of thousands of space administration employees hangs on the line of this decision: not a trivial consideration at all.  Secondly, it is not at all obvious what the right decision should be.  There are numerous possible options that can be selected in this decision, and the implications of each of those are different.

So, in making this decision, the administration would first have needed to consider what our fundamental objective for NASA will be.  Space enthusiasts might have said that our fundamental objective would be to launch a successful manned mission to Mars, enabling an American to be the first human to plant foot on the soil of the Red Planet.  But would that have really been our fundamental objective?  Whether intentionally or unintentionally, Colbert’s joke makes a point about the nature of the objective of manned space flight: is the success of a manned space flight mission the real objective, or is there something else to be gained by the success of that mission, such that the manned space flight mission is really just a means objective?  Colbert seems to suggest that the real fundamental objective is to “win glory for Americans”.  If that is the real fundamental objective, then, is a manned mission to Mars, or the Moon, or to somewhere else, really the best means objective?  Some astronauts contend that returning to the Moon would be a step down in glory, because we’ve already achieved that (though we haven’t been back since before I was born).  The only viable means to win glory, they contend, is to put a human on Mars. 

But is winning glory really our fundamental objective?

As a matter of fact, there are a very large number of objectives for which NASA’s human spaceflight program can play a role as an important means objective.  Previous human spaceflight programs in this country have lead to an incredible leap in technological development, much of which filters down to the average American in the form of an improvement in their standard of living.  Manned space exploration has also been a source of inspiration for America’s school students, providing the kind of motivation to improve their math and science education that few other outside motivators can – and it is a stated goal of the Obama administration to improve Math & Science education in the U.S.  And the push to develop the technologies needed for manned space flight has helped to keep America at the cutting edge of technological development, all of which improves the American economy.

So, ultimately, the manned spaceflight program has the true fundamental objective of improving economic development in the U.S.  It can be viewed as an investments that pays economic dividends in a variety of ways.  Having determined that, the next step would be to seriously consider how the different potential missions for NASA influence those goals.  Which was summed up well in one quote from the first article, in which the commander of the Apollo 13 mission, Jim Lovell, said:

The whole idea of any program is you have to set a goal.  You don’t just build technology and figure out what to do with it.

Obviously I don’t have access to all the data.  But I do worry that a loss in focus on manned spaceflight, and lacking a clear program objective (like “landing a human on mars”), NASA’s value to the country, in terms of the potential economic development resultant from spaceflight as well as in terms of national pride, will begin to wane.  I just don’t believe that’s a frontier we really want to cede.

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