On Space Travel and Neil Armstrong

On Saturday, the first person to set foot on another world died. In some ways, it is fantastic how rapidly we progressed from the first powered flight to stepping onto a celestial body. It was a mere sixty six years from the Wright Brothers’ flight to Apollo 11, but since the end of Apollo, we’ve largely given up any serious attempts to escape Earth’s gravity. Even with the advent of private spaceflight, it’s going to be a while before we get as far as the moon again.

Armstrong’s death has gotten me thinking about the general cost of spaceflight. Why should we spend all that money to go up there, the argument goes, when there are all these problems down here that need addressing? Yet, consider these numbers.

The estimated cost of the Apollo mission, in today’s dollars would be about $109-170 billion US over a ten year period, depending on who you ask. The estimated cost of a manned mission to Mars is harder to gauge. The higher bound is usually about $450 billion over a 30-40 year period.

Let’s put that in comparison with the cost of the Iraq War (about $800 billion) and the War in Afghanistan (about $560 billion) for a combined cost of about $1.36 trillion dollars. That would have bought three expensive missions to Mars over a much longer period of time (hence increasing practical affordability).

The worst case scenario for a Mars mission would be if we fund that mission, send the astronauts off, and somewhere between here and there the mission fails and we lose the ship and its crew. Even if that happens, you’re going have created jobs for thousands of scientists and engineers, revitalized interest in science, pushed the boundaries of countless fields of science and engineering, and likely created an infrastructure of earth orbit or moon infrastructure on which private or public space flight can piggy-back for future space exploration and development.

Those two wars, from my understanding, were supposed to make the world safer from terrorism, but with the loss of human life and accompanying destruction, a failure of a Mars mission seems preferable in comparison. If we (we being people who put things in space) spend the money we spend on silly wars on space exploration, it would be a general improvement on things. Yet it’s easier to convince people to do the former than the latter, even if science trickle-down economics are probably better for everybody in the long run.

I’m never going to be an astronaut. If I’m lucky, I might end up rich enough to buy a short jump into low earth orbit when I’m old and grey. If some future children of mine have the opportunity to walk out onto the red martian soil, I would be pretty damn happy. As it is, I’ll consider humanity doing well if my grandchildren can take that small step.

If we want a fitting memorial to Armstrong’s memory, it would be to go out among those stars again, to visit the moon and Mars and all the places beyond. If we start planning now, those future grandchildren might have a chance to get their boots red with the next great leap.

RIP Neil Armstrong. You lucky bastard you.