When is a space mission too expensive to fly? It’s a question much in the mind of proponents of robotic exploration, who can point to lower cost as one excellent reason to leave human crews out of our deep space missions. But robotic missions can suffer the same fate as human ones, with technology advances like miniaturization exploited not to pack more instruments on board but to reduce costs. Faster, cheaper, better, but bureaucratic inefficiencies can trump the savings.

Giancarlo Genta (Politecnico di Torino) offers up an interesting perspective on the cost question. In a keynote he delivered last year at the Fourth IAA Symposium on Realistic Near-Term Advanced Scientific Space Missions in Aosta, Italy, Genta compared the cost of space missions to other public enterprises like the construction of motorways or infrastructure projects like Alpine tunnels. In that light, the notion that space missions are unbearably costly is simply false. And he goes on to say this:

The same if we compare the cost of a major mission with what any big corporation spends each year in advertising, with what the people of a medium sized country spends each year to celebrate the New Year’s Day, not to speak of the annual budget of a large crime organization.

And here’s the crux:

At a lecture on space exploration given a short time after the burst of a large scandal of improper use of money for reconstruction following an earthquake, one of the listeners asked whether a manned mission to Mars could be organized with the money stolen. A quick check showed that not only a landing on Mars could be made with those funds, but a small colony could be started.

What is lacking, then, is not so much money as will, and here the problem is acute. Genta points to politicial spending practices that focus on the short-term, with the real benefits of long-term space projects simply outside the time horizon of the political and corporate process. But because historical explorations were driven largely by economic reasons and funded by private business, he sees hope in the commercial development of space, starting with ventures to low-Earth orbit.

He also points to an unsettling parallel raised by Ben Finney about the ocean explorations of the Chinese emperors. Between 1405 and 1433 the Ming Dynasty emperors sent out seven fleets to southeast Asia, India, Arabia and Africa, one of them so vast that it comprised 62 major ships and more than 27,000 officers and men. But these remarkable voyages ceased abruptly, and by 1500 it had become a capital offense to build a long-range seagoing vessel. The fact that an entire civilization can turn in on itself makes predictions about when we will reach particular destinations in the outer Solar System or beyond problematic, no matter how good we get at predicting the evolution of our technologies.

Genta’s address is available as “The Challenge of Very Deep Space Exploration: How Far Will the Frontier Be?” in the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society Vol. 59, No. 2 (February 2006). The paper is wide-ranging, with thoughts on the early space age, particularly Orion, and insights into robotic exploration as it pertains to life detection:

True that we cannot be sure that even human intelligence can perform this task, but certainly a machine not able to perform following the standards of strong AI has only a limited possibility. Recent experiments done with a robotic rover in Atacama Desert in Chile confirmed that this task is very difficult for a machine. And in this case it was terrestrial life, and the programmers knew well what to look for. The difficulties even for a human being of performing this task is demonstrated by the endless debate over the alleged discovery of Martian fossils in the ALH84001 meteorite, which could not be settled by the best biologists in the better equipped laboratories.

The Finney paper cited above is “The Prince and the Eunuch,” in Interstellar Migration and the Human Experience (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), pp. 196-207. As to the Aosta conference, JBIS reprinted papers from the meeting in two 2006 issues; we’ll be talking about several more of these in coming weeks.