Astronomical: Evaluating the Cost of the Space Program in Huntsville, AL

December 30th, 20112:39 pm @

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Apollo 12 moon rock

$150 billion for 50 pounds of moon rocks like this one. Does that seem like a good investment to you?

In all of human history there may be nothing as anti-climactic as a moon rock.  After spending 10 years and $150 billion, the US space program reached its summit by landing a man on the moon and bringing back 50 pounds of rocks.

Today, NASA values those rocks at $100,000 per ounce, which makes the total haul worth about $78 million bucks, or about $149 billion less than the cost of collecting them.

By any financial measure that’s a huge loss, a colossal waste of money, and judging by the ho-hum attitude shown by most visitors to the moon rock on display at the US Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama, a complete dud when it comes to sensational artifacts.

Rockets, including the Saturn 1 rocket, in Rocket Park at the US Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama

The impressive collection of rockets in Rocket Park at the US Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, AL.

But can we really quantify the space program in this way?  Should we?

Other exhibits at the US Space and Rocket Center garner more interest, the Apollo 16 capsule, the habitat complex used in the space station, and an impressive collection of missiles and rockets arranged like a stand of fir trees in an outdoor area called Rocket Park.

Even though the Center lacks an exhibit showcasing the many valuable products directly traceable to the space program, including Velcro, water filters, cordless tools, WD-40, scratch-resistant lenses, the integrated circuit, and GPS, it does do a good job of highlighting another arguably larger benefit, albeit one that is a little less tangible, the value to a nation of dreaming big, of reaching out for a common goal, of pulling together with spirit and enthusiasm to achieve something remarkable.

A Different America

German rocket scientists on a bus to Ft. Bliss, TX

Former Nazi rocket scientists on a bus to Ft. Bliss, Texas in 1945 where they would teach our military how to build rockets.

Today the idea of pulling together as a nation is laughable, but at the conclusion of World War II it was all the rage.  We had just built the world’s most powerful military, ramping up in three short years and defeating a determined enemy who, at the outset, was more advanced than us in every way, particularly technologically.

As Germany sat smoldering in ruins in the summer of 1945 our enlightened leaders (no, I am not using the term ironically this time) moved quickly to secure those German scientists responsible for the Nazi’s fledgling rocket program, keeping them out of the hands of the Soviets.  The scientists were spirited away to Fort Bliss, Texas where they were set to work training US military personnel in the intricacies of rocket building.

John F. Kennedy declaring that we would put a man on the moon by the end of the decade

Kennedy’s audacious claim that we would put a man on the moon within a decade was embraced by the majority of Americans in 1961.

By 1950 the German rocket team had been moved to Huntsville, Alabama where they were hard at work building the first nuclear ballistic missiles when, in the autumn of 1957 the Soviet Union leap-frogged the United States by launching Sputnik, the first artificial satellite, into orbit.

The threat of this unforeseen Soviet advancement during the height of the Cold War is hard to overstate. The ensuing hand-wringing led to the establishment of NASA, and the German scientists, along with their American counterparts, got to work building Saturn rockets to carry heavy payloads into space.

So encouraged was the government by the early work of NASA that in May of 1961 President John F. Kennedy declared the national goal of “landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth” within the decade.

The Saturn V rocket in its 68,000 sq ft exhibit hall at the US Space and Rocket Center

A Saturn V rocket suspended above the floor of the exhibit hall at the US Space and Rocket Center.

It is a measure of the tenor of the times, the lack of cynicism and trust in leadership, that as far-fetched as this goal seemed, most Americans embraced it.

It’s also worth noting that in 1961 the federal tax rate for top wage earners was 91%, and the capital gains tax was 25%.  So we had the money.  But most remarkable of all, Americans trusted their government to spend it wisely.

We had faith in our government, supported them with our taxes and achieved something extraordinary.

Out of This World

Today, as you look at the Saturn V rocket suspended above the floor of the 68,000 square foot exhibit hall built to house it, you are struck not only by its enormity (363 feet long, 33 feet in diameter) but by its simplicity.  The computers used in the Saturn V fall short of those employed in your average handheld calculator.  The tangle of hoses and pipes used to furnish a million and a half pounds of thrust looks like a complicated version of a V-8 engine.

Tour guide stands before an F-1 rocket engine

My tour guide Dean stands before the archaic looking F-1 rocket engine. This baby furnished a million and a half pounds of thrust.

Not only were we going to the moon, we were going with technology that, by today’s standards, was archaic.

But we were going anyway, against all odds, and it would wind up costing us a staggering amount of money.

The US Space and Rocket Center sits on the grounds of the Redstone Arsenal where the first American rockets were built.  Home to more than 1,500 exhibits and artifacts, it is the largest space museum in the world.  In addition to static exhibits like the Lockheed A-12 “Blackbird” spy plane, a fragment of Skylab, and the Space Shuttle Pathfinder, it has cool interactive exhibits.

You can try your hand at steering a rocket through space in a flight simulator or participate in a countdown and launch at a mock-up of mission control.  You can feel the rumble of lift-off in a the blast simulator or going rumbling across the surface of the red planet on a “Mission to Mars”.

Five people stand inside the blast off simulator at the US Space and Rocket Center

Dean and four youngsters stand inside the blast off simulator and experience the rumble and roar.

A couple of rides and simulators have come full circle.  Having been developed by NASA as a lift-off simulator, the Space Shot ride is now an amusement park staple, jetting you off the ground and shooting you up a column, before letting you gently down again.  The G-Force simulator is a variation on a standard centrifugal force ride, spinning you around the inside of a barrel until you are pinned against a wall.

For an admission price of $20 the US Space and Rocket Center is an outstanding value.  You will need at least 4 hours to take it all in and you will probably come away awe struck, if not by the marvel of what was accomplished, than by the sheer audacity of our nation, the American nation, investing so heavily in something that did not yield short-term quarterly results.

This was a program that by Wall Street standards could only be deemed a loser, a program whose ultimate value was unclear at the time, and remains a matter of dispute today.

A couple of visitors try their hand at steering a Saturn rocket through space.

A couple of visitors try their hand at steering a Saturn rocket through space.

The Future of NASA

This is what has changed.  We as a nation are no longer willing to make this kind of investment.  With the Space Shuttle program at an end, the way forward for NASA is unclear.  The space station is only funded through 2016.  The next generation Ares Rocket program is in doubt.

With across the board funding cuts scheduled to take place in 2013, NASA will be hard pressed to raise the funding necessary to achieve anything of lasting merit; and when the program fails to produce tangible short term results, the deficit hawks in congress will clamor for its elimination.

But let’s be realistic.  Exactly how did the space program with its staggering price tag really profit us?

One Small Step, One Giant Leap

Two astronauts repair the Hubble telescope

Two astronauts repair the Hubble telescope in the film Hubble, shown at the IMAX theatre at the US Space and Rocket Center.

Perhaps something of its value can be glimpsed when you take in the 3-D IMAX film Hubble, which was showing at the US Space and Rocket Center for an additional $8 when I was there.  The film chronicles the 1993 manned mission to repair a bent mirror on the deep space telescope, a mission that cost more than $1 billion.

Since then Hubble has been sending back crystal clear images of far off galaxies, helping provide solutions to vexing problems in astronomy and giving rise to new discoveries, such as the apparent fact that the expansion of the universe is accelerating, a discovery that has gotten physicists scratching their heads.

New advancements in physics could lead to breakthroughs in energy development and shift our paradigms in ways that we haven’t even imagined yet.  Without a doubt, space exploration still has the potential to rattle our world.

The Space Shuttle at the US Space and Rocket Center

Already a thing of the past, the Space Shuttle could be our last ambtious foray into space.

A Sound Investment?

But further servicing missions to Hubble are not scheduled.  The Space Shuttle program has been shut down.  The Hubble telescope will gradually decay and drift off into space.  No direct successor is ready for launch.

The MBA’s who pull the puppet strings of congress will likely tell you the whole enterprise has been a colossal waste, that a $150 billion investment in $78 million dollars worth of moon rocks is just stupid.  They will point out that savvy shareholders could never purchase a second home with an investment in that kind of enterprise.  So why would anyone do it?

View of earth from the moon

What’s it worth to discover another planet as hospitable as our own?

As I was driving away from the US Space and Rocket Center, a news report came on the radio.  The Keppler Space Telescope had just discovered the first planet outside our solar system that orbits within the habitable zone of a Sun-like star.  This planet could potentially sustain life, an astonishing discovery.  But there’s a caveat.

It’s 600 light years away, well beyond the investment horizon of most MBA’s.

For that reason, don’t expect Americans to make much of the new planet in the coming decades.  These days we only want to invest in small steps that earn big profits.  The giant leaps for mankind will have to wait for a more enlightened era, like the one we just left behind.

 

slide show

View the Complete US Space and Rocket Center Slide Show (25 images)

 

 

My American Odyssey Route

Previous stop on the odyssey: Orlando, FL  //
Next stop on the odyssey:  Concho, OK

Orlando to Huntsville Route Map

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Image credits:

Apollo 12 moon rock, James E. Scarborough; Rocket Park, Malcolm Logan; Nazi rocket scientists, Public Domain; John F. Kennedy moon speech, Public Domain; Saturn V rocket, Malcolm Logan; F-1 rocket engine, Malcolm Logan; Blast off simulator, Malcolm Logan; Steering a rocket, Malcolm Logan; Astronauts repairing the Hubble telescope, Hubble, the IMAX Movie ; The Space Shuttle, Malcolm Logan; Earth from space, Public Domain